A recent study has come up with some shocking news: life expectancy of the least educated white Americans, both men and women, is going down. White women without a high school diploma now live five years less on the average than they did 20 years ago: for white male dropouts, the decline is three years.
This is a calamity matched only by the six-year decline in longevity among Russian men in the waning years of Communism there. But that decline, blamed on rampant alcoholism, has been mostly reversed.
What's going on here? No one really knows, but my bet is that the cause is economic -- the collapse of the industrial, steady, low-wage jobs that once supported even the least-educated Americans. These people once were lower middle-class. Now they're just poor, the losers in the global economy, increasingly cut off from jobs, a steady income and, not incidentally, decent health care.
In a sense, we've been here before. What's happening to this new white underclass is a repeat of what happened to the black American underclass in the wake of the collapse of urban industry. That destroyed economy hit inner-city blacks 30 years ago, with results that echo today. Now, it's hitting whites, with results that mostly are yet to come.
So far as I can see, blacks never experienced the severe dip in longevity afflicting low-income whites today. According to the Center for Disease Control, average life expectancy for black men dipped by a year or two between 1984 and 1989, largely due to HIV and homicides. But black life expectancy is still shockingly low -- an average of 67.6 years for black men, as opposed to nearly 75 years for white men, according to a UCLA study. Black women live nearly 75 years on the average, but this is still five years less than the 80-year average for white women.
I wrote about this in my book, Caught in the Middle, on the impact of globalization on the Midwest. In a chapter entitled "Left Behind," I described the plight of urban blacks, the descendants of Southerners who came north in the Great Migration between 1915 and 1970, to escape Jim Crow laws down south and to find jobs in the booming factories of Chicago, Detroit and other cities. Since the '60s, the departure of this industry destroyed jobs, mostly held by men, and stranded families in a familiar cycle of unemployment, bad schools, crime, drugs, single-parent households and, increasingly low life expectancy.
More recently, this industrial collapse swept through the Midwest, hitting white workers and their communities as hard as black workers and towns. Most of all, the Midwesterners now being "left behind" are rural whites, a clan about as far from urban blacks as one can imagine but now sharing the same pathology -- poverty, bad health, reliance on government handouts, high dropout rates, drugs, down-home religions, broken families, empty futures.
Charles Murray and other writers have remarked on this growing gap between rich and poor white Americans. Murray called them virtually separate nations, with radically different patterns of marriage, work habits, education, religion, politics, even diet and TV watching. Some of Murray's past work is suspect -- he once found whites genetically superior to blacks. But his latest book, Coming Apart, argues that "our nation is coming apart at the seams -- not ethnic seams, but the seams of class." My own reporting in the left-behind stretches of the industrial Midwest supports much of this.
Murray doesn't think economic distress has much to do with this. He's wrong. The economic disasters that struck inner-city African Americans 30 years ago is happening again to whites, in both cause and effect. There's no reason to think these effects will stop with the decline in longevity among the first-hit and the worst-hit.
The latest longevity findings were in a study led by S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They showed that white female high school dropouts lived only 73.5 years on the average in 2008, down exactly five years from the 78.5 years they could expect in 1990. For white male dropouts, the drop was three years, from 70.5 years in 1990 to 67.5 years in 2008.
In the same period, both black and Latino life expectancy rose at all levels of education.
Other studies have shown vast differences in life expectancy between education levels, incomes, race and other factors. If the average white male dropout can expect to live only 67.5 years, white men with a college degree have an expectancy of 80.4 years, a 13-year gap. Those white women dropouts, with an expectancy of 73.5 years, are ten years behind white women with a college degree.
It gets worse. A National Institutes of Health study reported that black men live on the average eighteen years less than Asian females. Some geographical differences take this to even greater extremes: Native American men in one impoverished area of South Dakota live only 58 years on the average, fully 33 years less than the 91 years expected by Asian females in Bergen County, N.J., a high-rent district just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Genetics may have something to do with it. But not as much as economics and the fallout from economic differences. Poor people get less schooling, which leads to worse jobs, which leads to poorer lifestyles, which leads to stress, which leads to more smoking and drinking, which increases the chances of joblessness, which means no health insurance, all of which adds up to the kind of debilitating despair that never lengthened anyone's life.
Will life expectancy figures for whites begin to dip toward those of blacks? Possibly. The relatively short life expectancy for black men, for instance, is the result of two centuries of reduced life chances, in which the average man moved from slavery to sharecropping to a hard but relatively secure life on assembly lines, to unemployment when those lines closed, followed by several decades now of insecure employment, no health insurance, a vanishing role as the family breadwinner, bad diet and, increasingly, heavy drug use. White men in the Midwestern industrial belt enjoyed decades of economic stability, but for many of them, that's gone now. The least educated were hit first, and the longevity statistics illustrate the result.
Richard Longworth is a Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, now out in paperback (Bloomsbury USA). He writes at The Midwesterner: Blogging the Global Midwest, where this piece originally appeared.