Ross Douthat reminds me yet again that he is a pundit to whom we should listen very carefully. His take on the recent news that working class whites have a shocking health and mortality crisis seems spot-on to me:
STARTING around the turn of the millennium, the United States experienced the most alarming change in mortality rates since the AIDS epidemic. This shift was caused, not by some dreadful new disease, but by drugs and alcohol and suicide — and it was concentrated among less-educated, late-middle-aged whites.
We had hints that something like this was happening. We knew suicide was increasing among the middle-aged, that white women without a high school degree were struggling with health issues, that opiate addiction was a plague in working-class communities. But we didn’t know it was all bad enough to send white death rates modestly upward in the richest nation in the world.
I do want to emphasize his point that, although men commit more suicides than women, there has been a parallel decline in the health outcomes for high-school educated white women. (And do let me add that he links to the same TAP article I cited a few days back, so maybe I don't need to abandon the playing field just yet.)
As to reasons, his gist is that this is not poverty per se, since blacks and Hispanics in this country experience comparable (and probably worse) levels of poverty relative to working class whites. However, those groups have had decades to develop institutions and expectations to deal with it.
Amid the stresses of the dot-com bust and the Great Recession, it was only white Americans who turned increasingly to drugs, liquor and quietus.
Why only them? One possible solution is suggested by a paper from 2012, whose co-authors include Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox, leading left and right-leaning scholars, respectively, of marriage and family.
Noting that religious practice has fallen faster recently among less-educated whites than among less-educated blacks and Hispanics, their paper argues that white social institutions, blue-collar as well as white-collar, have long reflected a “bourgeois moral logic” that binds employment, churchgoing, the nuclear family and upward mobility.
But in an era of stagnating wages, family breakdown, and social dislocation, this logic no longer seems to make as much sense. The result is a mounting feeling of what the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher calls white “dispossession” — a sense of promises broken, a feeling that what you were supposed to have has been denied to you. (The Donald Trump phenomenon, Dreher notes, feeds off precisely this anxiety.)
For obvious historical reasons, though, Hispanic and (especially) black communities have cultivated a different set of expectations, a different model of community and family (more extended and matriarchal), a different view of success and the American story writ large.
If this possibility has policy implications, it suggests that liberals are right to emphasize the economic component to the working class’s crisis. But it cautions against the idea that transfer payments can substitute for the sense of meaning and purpose that blue-collar white Americans derived from the nexus of work, faith and family until very recently.
Maybe sustained growth, full employment and a welfare state that’s friendlier to work and family can help revive that nexus. Or maybe working-class white America needs to adapt culturally, in various ways, to this era of relative stagnation, and learn from the resilience of communities that are used to struggling in the shadow of elite neglect.
This has been unfolding for quite a while. The Angry White Man was credited with the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. Bill Clinton ran in 1992 on a promise to redirect the economy to reward those who "worked hard and played by the rules". And of course the First Sociologist gave us his view back when he was a candidate in 2008:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Then again, in the Times comments on related articles it is easy to find impassioned progressives arguing that you can't overthrow a hate-filled white patriarchy without breaking a few eggs, so what's the big deal?
And I note that Ross ducks the question of a possible creative tension between policies that promote "full employment" on the one hand and the current Democratic/Big Business Republican desire to wave in millions more unskilled immigrants.