white working class male ‘despair’ – or concealed racism?

Prof Anne Case of Princeton University

There has been widespread coverage  of  a report (ref 7)  that the white working class males are suffering from a ‘sea of despair’ causing a huge rise in deaths. This is inexplicably linked to a  comparison with the declining rate of  death of African American people.  An unstated implication which many are reading is that the decline in mortality for Black people is related to the rise for white working class.  This is political dynamite and is completely untrue. This would be strange given the well known  rise in inequality in the US where the top 10 per cent grow richer as the bottom 20 per cent actually get absolutely poorer (not merely relatively)  as Federal Reserve was  reported:

‘Economic growth since the Great Recession has improved the fortunes of the most affluent Americans even as the incomes and wealth of most American families continue to decline, the Federal Reserve said Thursday.

For the most affluent 10 percent of American families, average incomes rose by 10 percent from 2010 to 2013. For the rest of the population, average incomes were flat or falling.

The least affluent families had the largest declines. Average incomes dropped by 8 percent for the bottom 20 percent of families, the Fed reported in its triennial Survey of Consumer Finances, one of the most comprehensive sources of data on the financial health of American families.

The new report, broadly consistent with other data on the aftermath of the Great Recession, underscores why so many Americans think the economy remains in poor health. While the pie has grown, most people are getting smaller slices.

The result is that wealth also is increasingly concentrated. While overall wealth barely changed during the survey period, the money sloshed from the bottom toward the top. For the top 10 percent of families, ranked by income, estimated average wealth increased by 2 percent to $3.3 million. For the bottom 20 percent of families, average wealth sharply declined by 21 percent to $65,000.’ (MY emphasis) (ref.1)

Let us look at some further background to this issue of Black mortality:

 

Prof Victor Fuchs of Stanford wrote in Sept 2016:

“In recent decades the U.S. black population has experienced substantial gains in life expectancy, now becoming closer to the life expectancy of the white population. Between 1995 and 2014, the increase in black life expectancy at birth was more than double the white increase: a gain of 6.0 years from 69.6 years to 75.6 years for black people compared with a gain of 2.5 years from 76.5 years to 79.0 for white people,” (ref.2)

I have taken some trouble to get hold of some of the background sources which the Deaton/Case report refers to and which simply do not support the Deaton/Case analysis.

 

It is the Washington Post and not Deaton/Case that analysed the data and reported:

‘Besides, according to a Washington Post analysis of recent Census Bureau data, white American men without a college degree still earn 36 percent more than their black counterparts. But the death rate among less-educated black Americans has actually been decreasing. In recent years, the two groups have converged — they are dying at about the same rate — even though white Americans still earn more.’ (ref 3)

So how do Deaton/Case respond to this fact that even though white Americans are earning 36% more they are dying at a similar rate as Black people:

‘African-Americans, they add, may have become more resilient to economic challenges given their long-standing disadvantages in the job market.’  (ref 4)

This is utterly astonishing . They are saying in effect Black people are used to it. But the data from previous years showed that African Americans were previously dying at a much higher rate  than white work working class people. Where is the acculturation? Clearly they were not ‘used to it’. Lets put this bluntly: African American and White working class men are now dying at  converging rates but only the white working class predicament requires urgent policy attention? This underlying racism in assumptions is not only outrageous but widespread in the US economics profession. Fundamentally they are saying BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER! We can trace this infection of racism in economic parole to Adam Smith and earlier  see (ref 5).

 

Deaton/Case focus on the rate of change  and ignore the implications of the absolute numbers. Their choice of graphs and their presentation could be guaranteed to lead to ‘misunderstanding’  as where a left wing journal reports:

‘Case and Deaton found that midlife mortality for middle-aged, working-class, white Americans surpassed

the midlife mortality for all African Americans for the first time in 2008, and by 2015 mortality for working class

whites was 30 percent higher than for blacks.’ (ref 11) This is of course completely untrue, but we argue no accident.

If given a slightly higher income and same economic situation White working class men are dying at a higher rate than non-whites blaming the economy seems a perverse explanation. They cannot explicitly argue as the alt right might argue that it is loss of white privilege that is causing this as they still have a 36% white privilege. But that is the direction of their heading. Remind me : you get a Nobel prize for this depth of analysis?

 

One of the troubling factors for their analysis is the rapid increase in prescription of opioids which was highly differentiated between the populations and strongly correlated with leading indicators to the rise in deaths among white working class males. They seek to get round this by saying that the increased prescriptions were the effect of despair rather than the cause of death from opioid overdose (the increase in prescriptions  may partly be related to a Big Pharma induced sales drive)! Subsequently, they backtrack and recommend a restriction in prescriptions of opioids. There is astonishing racial differential in this analysis. Instead of blaming deaths of Black people to drug overdose as is customary  this analysis should have required the deaths to be attributed to ‘despair and loss of hope’ but Deaton/Case make no effort to apply their proposed analysis consistently across ethnic groups and across time. This lead us into troubling territory: opioid overdose must be treated with compassion but other drug abuse must be harshly criminalised. One group is white non-Hispanic and the other is generally identified as African-American. Deaton/Case by explicitly separating Black from White and making a case for ‘sea of despair’ that apparently only affects the white ethnic group create a sub-text that is fully understood in the worlds of policy and power. As Ehrlichman bluntly confessed in Harper’s:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”(ref.9)

What many statisticians have ignored when reviewing Deaton/Case’s papers as a statistical irrelevance and slight of hand proves to be a political signal of highest importance to be ignored at extreme political peril.

 

Case/Deaton state:

‘But one of the things I’ll mention today is the World Bank classifies people as being in global destitution if they have a per capita consumption of less than $1.90 per person per day. I think there are rather a lot of people at that level in the U.S., which the World Bank measures, but then brushes it aside. They say no one in the U.S. could possibly live on that. But there are probably millions of people in the U.S. who are actually as poor as anyone in Africa or Asia.’

This is undoubtedly true but where is the racial divide? I suspect the ethnic breakdown will be as devastating as previously. Given that the economists working on this at World Bank were most likely US based then blaming the World Bank as if it were a ‘foreign’ institution is meretricious. So there is a great problem of poverty in US and the question that arises is: why privilege white working class men? (ref 6)

 

So where does explicit racism arise?

 

White middle aged Americans used to die at the same rate as Germans, now they die 45% more.  Given this why is there any need to mention African Americans who are dying at the similar rates as white working class males? To compare white working class morbidity to  African Americans as a whole is to imply that the worst off white person should expect to be better off than the average African American – a la Adam Smith. This is clearly ‘coded speech’ for an intended (Breitbart following?) audience. By saying Blacks and Hispanics are doing ‘better’ than White working class  it allows for funding and legislative priorities to be focussed exclusively on White people.  Some lives are clearly more important than others. Do I hear you mention President Obama’s phrase ‘dog whistle racism’?

 

I will be analysing the actual  data in greater depth when I can get it.

 

In the meantime  there are those whose profession is public health who disdain Deaton Case analysis  as seriously misleading at a technical level (see ref 8).

‘If Brookings had gone with, “What Happened to Mortality Among 45–54-Year-Old White Non-Hispanics? It Declined From 1989 to 1999, Increased From 1999 to 2005, and Held Steady After That” — which is how Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman interpreted the data — the reception would have been very different.’ (ref 8)

or

‘the Brookings blog headline: “Working Class White Americans Are Now Dying in Middle Age at Faster Rates Than Minority Groups.” I asked Geronimus if that was, to her understanding, a true statement: “I think that’s misleading, I really do. Oh boy,” she laughs, “there’s so much wrong with that. That headline makes it sound like problems are worse for white Americans than black Americans.” (ref 8)

 

However while deploring the statistical legerdemain they hesitate to call the motivation by name or to track the sub-text. Many might be forgiven for seeing it another way: concealed racism. As Krish Lingala asks:

‘Now, as people like Christie speak with compassion and understanding for opioid addicts, the question remains: Where was this compassion for black people?’ (ref 10)

Deaton and Case’s supporters will no doubt think it as normal as those statements about Africans in Adam Smith. (ref 5)

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES

  1. Federal Reserve report on inequality

(https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/business/economy/least-affluent-families-incomes-are-declining-fed-survey-shows.html?_r=0)

2.  Report on Black gains in life expectancy

http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?doi=10.1001/jama.2016.14398

3. Disease killing white americans …

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/24/the-disease-killing-white-americans-goes-way-deeper-than-opioids/?utm_term=.25ec5e61f183

4. white working class dying

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/less-educated-middle-age-us-whites-dying-younger-than-others/2017/03/23/ecd91090-0f7d-11e7-aa57-2ca1b05c41b8_story.html?utm_term=.4e023986da8d

5. Racism in economics

https://african-century.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Comments_on_Racism_misconceptions_of_rac.pdf

6. Deaton & Trump

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/07/what-the-nobel-prize-winner-in-economics-has-in-common-with-donald-trump/?utm_term=.9527255b49af)

 

7. Deaton and Case paper

Working class white Americans are now dying in middle age at faster rates than minority groups

 

Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century

8 Death of white working class exaggerated

https://psmag.com/the-death-of-the-white-working-class-has-been-greatly-exaggerated-1c568d3e6b8c

9. Ehrlichman on drugs war

http://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/

10 Krish Lingala

https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/edition-159/trumps-opioid-plan-and-bones-war-drugs/

11. World Socialist website review

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/03/24/stud-m24.html