The number is 150,000. That’s roughly how many Americans — mostly middle-aged, working-class white men and women — succumb to “deaths of despair” in the United States each year. The causes are suicide, alcohol and drugs tracing back to lack of jobs, low wages and the dissolution of family and church. The number could turn out to be greater than the coronavirus deaths, but, thanks to the pandemic, social distancing and the virtual shutdown of America, the despair could grow.
It was economists who first discovered that here was a major social group whose longevity was decreasing. That was contrary to what was going on all over the world where life expectancy had been going up for just about everyone in developed and even most undeveloped countries. Life expectancy, while still higher for black and Hispanic Americans, declined enough to make the life expectancy numbers show a decline for Americans as a whole.
What mostly deprived these people of the opportunities of old was an increasingly automated nation that just did not have jobs to the extent that used to be the case. Lately, there has been growth and something like a half million solid jobs available in manufacturing that sadly went unfilled because of an absence of the required skills.
Good jobs lend a person dignity, the ability to get a home, start a family and enjoy a rewarding life. And here is what a recent Rasmussen poll of Americans showed: More Americans in this virus epoch are worried about loss of income than their health. Of course, long before the virus, things were beginning to fall apart for many without college educations, such as disdain visited on them by the better off. Remember the phrase “basket of deplorables”?
Marriage became less frequent, the men did not have families, and the kids from fatherless homes were more likely to be suicidal, to get involved in crime, to drop out of school and to remain poor. A Harvard study indicated that people from fatherless homes were less likely to be socially mobile than others, less able to climb upward, to fulfill a dream.
Another Harvard scholar said the “deaths of despair” were tied to a decline in spirituality. As Charles Murray, a social scientist, also pointed out, fewer and fewer of the poorest 20% go to church, which is also a community, a group of friends who help each other. The opioid deaths have actually decreased under President Donald Trump as wages have gone up, especially for the most vulnerable, along with a record number of jobs being created. Fewer regulations and corporate taxes at last as low at those in Europe have made a difference.
Now we have one of the most stunning events in American history, a pandemic that has practically shut the country down. To avert COVID-19 contagion as best as possible, most of us are confined to our homes, and all kinds of businesses have closed as more than 10 million additional people have lost jobs in just the last few weeks. A quarter of the upended businesses say they may never rise again. Despite a $2 trillion bill enacted into law to help the worst hit businesses and people, we’re faced with an almost impossible task just as important as defeating the virus.
While I continue to bow to the experts in the steps the states and the federal government have taken, we must understand that our society could suffer for years if we are not able to open things up fairly soon. Some say it could be a matter of weeks or months and one expert says a disastrous year and a half.
A bad economy kills, and I have made that point to emphasize that we need decisive, intelligent leadership. It’s encouraging that Trump is now putting a special task force together, but just as the health workers have been heroic, we must have heroic entrepreneurs, managers, workers, neighbors helping each other and more training and rejuvenated churches as we push ahead with a free market system made more free. We must understand that talk of the economy is not something crass but something humane.