The release of a new and shocking report concerning the impact of economic change on vulnerable citizens could not have come at a better time. It comes in the wake of the papal visit and before an election year, when both the American people and leaders of the church are examining their economic and moral priorities. Pope Francis has challenged both the church and Congress to direct their energies toward serving the weak and the poor.
A team of economists—Anne Case, a professor of economics at Princeton University, and Angus Deaton, her husband, also a Princeton economist and a Nobel Prize-winner—have published “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century” about white Americans, ages 45 to 54, who died between 1999 and 2013. To the researchers’ astonishment, the death rate among these men and women rose dramatically, while the rate for other demographic groups in the United States and their European counterparts remained the same.
This increase has been attributed to drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide and chronic liver diseases. Although these maladies struck others as well, members of this group are marked by a lack of education; they either dropped out of high school or did not pursue a college degree. These findings are disturbing because, in recent years, job-related illnesses followed by inadequate medical response have ravaged this age group. Many of their contemporaries have thrived, but since the 1990s physical and mental health issues and the struggle for daily survival among this battered-by-life minority have taken their toll. As Mr. Deaton told The Washington Post, “Half a million people are dead who should not be dead.” These figures are “about 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with H.I.V./AIDS.” He describes these victims as white Americans who have “lost the narrative of their lives.”
Other countries, particularly in Europe, survived economic changes because of strong social safety nets. In contrast, jobs in manufacturing and construction in the United States have all but vanished; the less-educated unemployed lack the resources that would allow them to have the lives they imagined.
Paul Krugman, another Nobel Prize-winning economist, writing in The New York Times on Nov. 9, sees that “despair appears to be spreading across Middle America” with troubling consequences for society as the wounded cannot deal with the failure for them of the American dream. Universal health care, higher minimum wages and aid to education could do a lot to help, but it would not cure existential despair. Another Times contributor, Richard A. Friedman, blames doctors who enable addiction: “An opioid overdose epidemic is at the heart of this rise in white middle age mortality” (Nov. 8). These drugs were intended for cancer pain; but now primary care physicians who lack appropriate training and are egged on by aggressive marketers use them for purposes other than those intended.
The website nakedcaptalism.com, which offers “fearless commentary on finance, economics, politics and power,” has accumulated several hundred letters that expose the pain afflicting this population. One writes, “But in the end, it sucks to be discarded by society like a piece of trash.” Another, flooded by alcohol and pain, clutches the gun that “makes suicide much simpler.” Another describes himself as a “good person who got crushed by this so-called ‘society’ and saw no other way out.” They rarely mention religion. One ex-banker, devastated by his “failure,” nurtures a collection of painkillers to do their job as his “shove off” date approaches.
In the Book of Genesis, Adam asks Cain where his brother, Abel, is. Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But until society acknowledges these stories—until we help people recover the “narratives of their lives”—we are not even in a position to ask Cain’s question. The presidential candidates’ debates have mostly shied away from the inequality issue, apart from promising to cut taxes for the wealthy.
Other advanced countries, which provide a much better safety net for people in economic hardship, have not seen an increasing mortality. We should learn from them. Drugs that can be abused must be prudently prescribed. Colleges and universities could reconsider their recruitment strategies and reach out to non-elite populations.
Media agencies that can sponsor investigative reporting have a special responsibility to shine light on those dark corners where the poor and sick huddle. Perhaps we need another Michael Harrington, whose The Other America (1962) introduced John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson to the “invisible poor.” Finally, church leaders could redirect their influence and resources—in synods, diocesan publications, church-owned television networks and parishes—to rescuing our dying brothers and sisters. That is our obligation as “keepers.”