Failing Economies Shorten Lives


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.

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Welcome to the lowest common denominator!

Fascinating article and interesting, mostly useful comments. Clearly the causes of reduced life expectancy are many and varied. But economics is surely at the root of the issue and the impact of globalization on the lower end of the middle class is surely a central cause.

For all its good, globalization essentially represents the chase for the lowest cost of production. When those in less developed countries are willing to produce quality goods for lower wages, then the production zooms offshore. Of course, there will always be someone in some country willing to work for just a little less, hence globalization will continue to drive an endless progression of job loss among those with lower skills but needing a bit higher wage to sustain their lives.

In the end, this search for lowest production cost is a bit like finding the lowest/least common denominator when working with fractions. Except in this case, the lowest common denominator represents the lowest wage anyone is willing to work for, anywhere in the world. And that lowest wage establishes the lowest common denominator wage for that class of work. Anyone who anticipates earning more than that lowest common denominator is out of work and out of luck.

Re: Failing Economies Shorten Lives

Given that there are fewer and fewer high-school dropouts (source: the study Mr. Longworth quotes), it's not surprising that their life expectancy is going down. As the people who fail to get high school diplomas are increasingly ignorant or dysfunctional on average, the behaviors they engage in will become increasingly self-destructive.


What source are you citing for "A recent study?"

I do not see a link to any analysis that shows life expectancy by educational attainment.

Given that U.S. death data is only current through 2008, it would be difficult to pin the trend on the economy without further analysis. Falling life expectancy could be due to an increase in obesity, lack of access to adequate healthcare, increasing STD or drug use rates, etc... It could be that poor health is the cause of lower education and not vice versa...

I'd like to read the original source report for more information.

Prescriptive Land Use Rationing and Low Minimum Wage to Blame

I would suggest that prescriptive land use rationing, and "smart growth," results in unemployment and underemployment, and shorter lives.

For example, in Bend, Oregon, the DLCD (State Department of Land Conservation and Development) has prevented the expansion of the City of Bend Urban Growth Boundary for seven years. Unemployment continues in double digits, with no end in sight, due to the ongoing conflict between Bend, and the State of Oregon, over UGB expansion, and the recent water and sewer problem.

Another issue is the Los Angeles DWP (Department of Water and Power), who continues to decrease water supplies for communities in the Eastern Sierra. With the recent bankruptcy of the Town of Mammoth Lakes, it may be that DWP may take Mammoth Lakes' water.

And, in Yucca Valley, California, a rapidly growing "exurban" community of San Bernadino and Riverside, the State of California has ordered that each and every resident pay thousands of dollars, to install sanitary sewer systems, to replace the existing septic system.

Everyone will become poorer in all three of these places. And, of course, in Reno, and Las Vegas (NV), federal lands (mostly BLM) are off limits to development, resulting in high unemployment rates of construction workers.

You wrote, and see below:

"...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..."

This is also from prescriptive land use rationing, which was the root cause of the housing bubble in cities with urban growth boundaries, mostly in the northern part of the nation (and, on the west coast and Denver-Boulder). With foreclosures, everyone moved into apartments, creating a rent bubble, increasing the burden on the lower middle class.

This rent bubble also occurred in sunbelt markets with artificial UGB's due to federal and state lands, such as Phoenix, Vegas, Reno-Carson City, and Palm Springs. In addition, these Conservative markets have low minimum wages. They have never indexed their minimum wage to inflation, and/or raised their wages to appropriate levels, such as $10 in Santa Fe, NM, or $9.19 in Washington State. If the federal minimum wage was originally indexed to inflation, it might be over $12, nationwide. It is not rational to have a minimum wage, when it is not tied to inflation.

As for African Americans and Hispanics, "smart growth" policies drive them out of increasingly Caucasian cities, such as Seattle and Portland. Dr. Richard Morrill of the UW, Dr. Henry McGee of Seattle University, Dr. Randall Pozdena, and John Fox of Seattle have written about how blacks have left downtown "infill" areas since it is too expensive. Seattle continues to demolish lower income housing (i.e. for the lower middle class, as you suggest), and build 10 to 25 story "smart growth towers," that are very expensive and designed and marketed to "young urban professionals."

Finally, gas prices and inappropriate gas taxes, along with inappropriate funding for the personal automobile, lengthen commuting times and waste gas money. In Washington State, gas taxes are used for non-highway purposes, including light rail. This is illegal, under a voter approved amendment to the Washington State Constitution, passed in 1947. Currently, Kemper Freeman, and his Eastside Transportation Association, are suing in court over the unconstitutional use of gas taxes for light rail. Hopefully they will win, and give Washingtonians - especially the poor that you write above - some well deserved new freeway lanes. -Tom Lane

I just cant stop reading

I just cant stop reading this. Its so cool, so full of information that I just didnt know. Im glad to see that people are actually writing about this issue in such a smart way, showing us all different sides to it. Youre a great blogger. Please keep it up. I cant wait to read whats next.