Case and Deaton contend that the ballots cast for Donald Trump by members of the white working class “are surely not for a president who will dismantle safety nets but against a Democratic Party that represents an alliance between minorities — whom working-class whites see as displacing them and challenging their once solid if unperceived privilege — and an educated elite that has benefited from globalization and from a soaring stock market, which was fueled by the rising profitability of those same firms that were increasingly denying jobs to the working class.”
From 2005 to 2019, an average of 70,000 Americans died annually from deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning). These deaths are concentrated among less than college educated middle-aged whites, with those out of the labor force disproportionately represented. Low-income minorities are significantly more optimistic than whites and much less likely to die of these deaths. This despair reflects the decline of the white working class. Counties with more respondents reporting lost hope in the years before 2016 were more likely to vote for Trump.
Lack of hope, in Graham’s view, “is a central issue. The American dream is in tatters and, ironically, it is worse for whites.” America’s high levels of reported pain, she writes, “are largely driven by middle-aged whites. As there is no objective reason that whites should have more pain than minorities, who typically have significantly worse working conditions and access to health care, this suggests psychological pain as well as physical pain.”
There are, Graham argues,
long-term reasons for this. As blue-collar jobs began to decline from the late 1970s on, those displaced workers — and their communities — lost their purpose and identity and lack a narrative for going forward. For decades whites had privileged access to these jobs and the stable communities that came with them. Primarily white manufacturing and mining communities — in the suburbs and rural areas and often in the heartland — have the highest rates of despair and deaths. In contrast, more diverse urban communities have higher levels of optimism, better health indicators, and significantly lower rates of these deaths.
In contrast to non-college whites, Graham continued,
minorities, who had unequal access to those jobs and worse objective conditions to begin with, developed coping skills and supportive community ties in the absence of coherent public safety nets. Belief in education and strong communities have served them well in overcoming much adversity. African Americans remain more likely to believe in the value of a college education than are low-income whites. Minority communities based in part on having empathy for those who fall behind, meanwhile, have emerged from battling persistent discrimination.
Over the past three years, however, there has been a sharp increase in drug overdose deaths among Black men, Graham noted in an email:
The “new” Black despair is less understood and perhaps more complex. A big factor is simply Fentanyl for urban Black men. Plain and simple. But other candidates are Covid and the hit the African American communities took; Trump and the increase of “acceptance” for blatant and open racism; and, for some, George Floyd and continued police violence against blacks. There is also a phenomenon among urban Black males that has to do with longer term despair: nothing to lose, weak problem-solving skills, drug gangs and more.
The role of race and gender in deaths of despair, especially drug-related deaths, is complex. Case wrote in an email:
Women have always been less likely to kill themselves with drugs or alcohol, or by suicide. However, from the mid-1990s into the 20-teens, for whites without a four-year college degree, death rates from all three causes rose in parallel between men and women. So the level has always been higher for men, but the trend (and so the increase) was very similar between less-educated white men and women. For Blacks and Hispanics the story is different. Deaths of Despair were falling for less educated Black and Hispanic men from the early 1990s to the 20-teens and were constant over that period (at a much lower rate) for Black and Hispanic women without a B.A. After the arrival of Fentanyl as a street drug in 2013, rates started rising for both Black and Hispanic men and women without a B.A., but at a much faster rate for men.
In their October 2014 study, “Economic Strain and Children’s Behavior,” Lindsey Jeanne Leininger, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and Ariel Kalil, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, found a striking difference in the pattern of behavioral problems among white and Black children from demographically similar families experiencing the financial strains of the 2008 Great Recession:
Specifically, we found that economic strain exhibited a statistically significant and qualitatively large association with White children’s internalizing behavior problems and that this relationship was not due to potentially correlated influences of objective measures of adverse economic conditions or to mediating influences of psychosocial context. Furthermore, our data provide evidence that the relationship between economic strain and internalizing problems is meaningfully different across White and Black children. In marked contrast to the White sample, the regression-adjusted relationship between economic strain and internalizing behaviors among the Black sample was of small magnitude and was statistically insignificant.
Kalil elaborated on this finding in an email: “The processes through which white and Black individuals experience stress from macroeconomic shocks are different,” she wrote, adding that the “white population, which is more resourced and less accustomed to being financially worried, is feeling threatened by economic shocks in a way that is not very much reflective of their actual economic circumstances. In our study, among Black parents, what we are seeing is basically that perceptions of economic strain are strongly correlated with actual income-to-needs.”
This phenomenon has been in evidence for some time.
A 2010 Pew Research Center study that examined the effects of the Great Recession on Black and white Americans reported that Black Americans consistently suffered more in terms of unemployment, work cutbacks and other measures, but remained far more optimistic about the future than whites. Twice as many Black as white Americans were forced during the 2008 recession to work fewer hours, to take unpaid leave or switch to part-time, and Black unemployment rose from 8.9 to 15.5 percent from April 2007 to April 2009, compared with an increase from 3.7 to 8 percent for whites.
Despite experiencing more hardship, 81 percent of Black Americans agreed with the statement “America will always continue to be prosperous and make economic progress,” compared with 59 percent of whites; 45 percent of Black Americans said the country was still in recession compared with 57 percent of whites. Pew found that 81 percent of the Black Americans it surveyed responded yes when asked “Is America still a land of prosperity?” compared with 59 percent of whites. Asked “will your children’s future standard of living be better or worse than yours?” 69 percent of Black Americans said better, and 17 percent said worse, while 38 percent of whites said better and 29 percent said worse.