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Dead Deplorables & Class Warfare

More bad news about the white working class


The graph on the left is white people without college degrees. The other one is white people with college degrees. The source is this paper from Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. The numbers for black and Hispanic working-class people don’t track these stats for working-class whites. The economists can’t figure out what’s going on:

Taking all of the evidence together, we find it hard to sustain the income-based explanation.For white non-Hispanics, the story can be told, especially for those aged 50–54, and
for the difference between them and the elderly, but we are left with no explanation for
why Blacks and Hispanics are doing so well, nor for the divergence in mortality between
college and high-school graduates, whose mortality rates are not just diverging, but going
in opposite directions.

But they have some intuition:

We have seen that it is difficult to link the increasing distress in midlife to the obvious contemporaneous aggregate factors, such as income or unemployment. But some of the most convincing discussions of what has happened to working class whites emphasize a longterm process of decline, or of cumulative deprivation, rooted in the steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education, see in particular Cherlin (2009, 2014). This process, which began for those leaving high school and entering the labor force after
the early 1970s—the peak of working class wages, and the beginning of the end of the “blue collar aristocracy”—worsened over time, and caused, or at least was accompanied by, other
changes in society that made life more difficult for less-educated people, not only in their employment opportunities, but in their marriages, and in the lives of and prospects for their children. Traditional structures of social and economic support slowly weakened; no longer was it possible for a man to follow his father and grandfather into a manufacturing job, or to join the union. Marriage was no longer the only way to form intimate partnerships, or to rear children. People moved away from the security of legacy religions or the churches of their parents and grandparents, towards churches that emphasized seeking an
identity, or replaced membership with the search for connections, Wuthnow (1990). These changes left people with less structure when they came to choose their careers, their religion, and the nature of their family lives. When such choices succeed, they are liberating; when they fail, the individual can only hold him or herself responsible. In the worst cases of
failure, this is a Durkheim-like recipe for suicide.

The paper goes on to cite research showing that “it is now unusual for women without a college degree not to have a child outside of marriage.” More:

In our account here, we emphasize the labor market, globalization and technical change as the fundamental forces, and put less focus on any loss of virtue, though we certainly
accept that the latter could be a consequence of the former. Virtue is easier to maintain in a supportive environment. Yet there is surely general agreement on the roles played by changing beliefs and attitudes, particularly the acceptance of cohabitation, and of the rearing of children in unstable cohabiting unions.

These slow-acting and cumulative social forces seem to us to be plausible candidates to explain rising morbidity and mortality, particularly their role in suicide, and with the other deaths of despair, which share much with suicides. As we have emphasized elsewhere, Case and Deaton (2015b), purely economic accounts of suicide have consistently failed to explain the phenomenon. If they work at all, they work through their effects on family, on spiritual fulfillment, and on how people perceive meaning and satisfaction in their lives in a way that goes beyond material success. At the same time, cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected is consistent with people compensating through other risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol, overeating, or drug use that predispose towards the outcomes we have been discussing.

Read the entire paper. It’s fairly technical.

This is not news, exactly; I wrote about an earlier Case-Deaton paper last year. It’s worth remembering, though that this problem is still with us, and is severe. One factor that we have to keep front to mind is that the Sexual Revolution, in all its manifestations (e.g., collapse of family structure, collapse of religion), may well have been deadly, in a literal sense, for the white working class.

Along these lines, it is very much worth reading R.R. Reno’s essay in the new First Things, in which he signals a remarkable (and, to me, welcome) shift in that journal’s attitude towards economics. In it, he talks about why the late Michael Novak’s theological blessing of capitalism (Novak was very close to the magazine) was a good thing in its day, but no longer is. Reno:

Retro figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn gain traction, not because voters believe in socialism, but because they intuit that they cannot live in a world of pure dynamism and openness. We are drowning in freedom. To a degree unprecedented in human history, super-majorities in the West experience few impediments to earning and accumulating wealth—other than those they (or their parents) impose by ill-considered uses of their freedom (which turn out to be significant, often insuperable impediments). Age-old expectations of marriage and children have become choices. We can even choose to become male or female. In this context, voting for a “socialist” does not mean signaling a return of Marxism. It reflects the fact that, thirty years after the end of communism, some voters haltingly recognize that our freedom must be directed toward enduring ends if it is to serve something higher than itself. And in our age, which has taken economics to be the key to almost everything, that intuition naturally comes into focus with calls for limits on economic freedom.

Retro-socialism is a dead end. But in the absence of alternatives that promise stability and relief from the existential exhaustion of perpetual dynamism, Sanders, Corbyn, and others on the left are likely to garner support. The same can be said for populist sentiments that endorse nationalist economic policies of protectionism and subsidies that fly in the face of free market principles.

Michael was right in his time, but times have changed. The truth about the human person has a side other than the one that seeks dynamism and openness. This side requires permanence, not in the superficial form of a frozen status quo, but rather in ends, purposes, and projects to which we can entrust our loyalty. This side of the human person has gone unfulfilled in recent decades. Today’s crisis is one of reliable loves.

It is time, therefore, to set aside the notion that the problems we face in the West can be solved by stiffer doses of economic freedom. In parts of Asia, Africa, and other areas of the world, this prescription has merit. But here it’s pure homeopathy. What we need is quite different.


We are created in the image of God. Our desire for dynamism and openness reflects the fact that we are made for something more, something greater. As St. Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Our civic life and economic system should give room and scope for that restlessness, as Michael so winsomely argued. But we are not made for endless seeking and striving. Our end is rest in God. In this life, we rightly cherish that which foreshadows this final rest: belonging to a family with its own home and heritage; being from a particular place and participating in a civic culture that has a noble inheritance to be cherished and sustained; being in solidarity as a distinct people that shares a common future, the most important of which is the Church, the people of God who seek to abide in him. What Michael Novak failed to recognize—what we must acknowledge—is that the dynamism of free market capitalism invades, overturns, refashions, and sometimes destroys these places of rest.

Read it all. 

The standard Novak-era conservative response, crudely put, is that capitalism rewards virtue. There’s still a lot to that. The Case-Deaton paper shows that what’s happening to the white working class cannot be blamed entirely on economics. But it is also likely the case that economic changes cannot be easily disentangled from the pathologies afflicting the white working class, and taking them to early deaths.

What can be done? And can it be done in time to avoid a greater catastrophe? The evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin believes that the US is due for major political violence and upheaval in the 2020s.   Follow the link to read his theory. If he’s right, my post from this morning, about how our present day troubles are nothing compared to the convulsions wracking the country in the late 60s to early 70s, is going to date badly.