I don’t know quite know what to make of this, but for those of us who know that the problems of the white working class is more than just “they are a bunch of racists,” it is interesting. Moreover, it by no means downplays the role of racism, or more accurately, how racism intersects with other issues, such as economics, to create a certain worldview.
Case and Deaton published a second paper last month, in which they emphasized that the epidemic they had described was concentrated among white people without any college education. But they also searched for a source for what they had called despair. They wondered if a decline in income might explain the phenomenon, but that idea turned out not to fit the data so well. They noticed that another long-running pattern fit more precisely—a decline in what economists call returns to experience.
The return to experience is a way to describe what you get in return for aging. It describes the increase in wages that workers normally see throughout their careers. The return to experience tends to be higher for more skilled jobs: a doctor might expect the line between what she earns in her first year and what she earns in her fifties to rise in a satisfyingly steady upward trajectory; a coal miner might find it depressingly flat. But even workers with less education and skills grow more efficient the longer they hold a job, and so paying them more makes sense. Unions, in arguing for pay that rises with seniority, invoke a belief in the return to experience. It comes close to measuring what we might otherwise call wisdom.
“This decline in the return to experience closely matches the decline in attachment to the labor force,” Case and Deaton wrote. “Our data are consistent with a model in which the decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.”
The return to experience is not the best-known economic concept, but it is alive in most of our contemporary economic spook stories, in which the callow private-equity analyst has the final power over an industry in which people have long labored, in which the mechanical robot replaces the assembly-line worker, in which the doctor finds his diagnosis corrected by artificial intelligence. It seemed to match at least one emotional vein that ran through the Trump phenomenon, and the more general alienation of the heartland: people are aging, and they are not getting what they think they have earned.
This makes of a lot of sense–thinking about “deserve” can bring out what people think it means to be an American, to be a worker, to be white. It also allows plenty of leeway for the power of myth in American society, which given how strongly people want to believe in bootstrapism and the middle class, only adds to the power of the argument. It seems those who are familiar with the arguments agree that it fits their lives.
Since they published their first paper, Case and Deaton have found their e-mail in-boxes filling up with emotional responses from people for whom the idea of an epidemic of despair had personal resonance. “People want to tell their stories,” Case said. In those stories, economic and social despair and health crises often intertwined. “Not being able to get a good job and my girlfriend threw me out,” she said, recounting themes that came up over and over. “Hurt my back at work, lost my job, got evicted, couldn’t get another job.”
Case said that she had lately been drawn to the research of the scholars Sara McLanahan, of Princeton, and Andrew Cherlin, of Johns Hopkins, who study the relationship between family structure and economic circumstance, and whose statistics tended to match many of the stories that were coming in via e-mail. Declining economic prospects seemed to wind their way into all kinds of difficulties. “People who have less education, people whose job prospects aren’t great, are finding it harder and harder to get married,” she said. People were having children and cohabiting, but not necessarily forever. When they encounter a setback, or when their health begins to decline, they find themselves without support. “That’s a story we hear quite a lot,” she said.
Again, this may not explain everything, but it is the kind of multifaceted response that I think leads us in the right direction of getting toward the root of the issues.