Excerpts from an important article in the Atlantic. Read the whole thing here.
For the last several months, social scientists have been debating the striking findings of a study by the economists Susan Case and Angus Deaton. Between 1998 and 2013, Case and Deaton argue, white Americans across multiple age groups experienced large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse—spikes that were so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily improving life expectancy. While critics have challenged the magnitude and timing of the rise in middle-age deaths (particularly for men), they and the study’s authors alike seem to agree on some basic points: Problems of mental health and addiction have taken a terrible toll on whites in America—though seemingly not in other wealthy nations—and the least educated among them have fared the worst.
Meanwhile, other recent research has piled on the bad news for those without college degrees. A Pew study released last month found that the size of the middle class—defined by a consistent income range across generations—has shrunk over the last several decades. In part, this is because high-paying jobs for the less educated are vanishing. The study builds on other recent research that finds that almost all the good jobs created since the recession have gone to college graduates.
As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits. These prospects suggest that this is an age of diminished expectations for the working class.
Yet there is clearly more to the despair of the working class than empty wallets and purses. Patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed. When asked in national surveys about the people with whom they discussed “important matters” in the past six months, those with just a high-school education or less are likelier to say no one (this percentage has risen over the years for college graduates, too). This trend is troubling, given that social isolation is linked to depression and, in turn, suicide and substance abuse.
The religiously unaffiliated are not necessarily secular in their outlook. Many of them are spiritually inclined but skeptical of organized religion—especially its intrusion into politics. However, in the absence of any other source of social support and collective meaning (say, unions), there’s less in the way of psychological protection from the slings and arrows of American society.
This sort of isolation was common among the people I talked to. Many said their faith was helping them get through their ongoing troubles, yet they rarely or never went to church. Some felt ashamed to be around people because they were out of work. For others, their religious belief was somewhat a source of self-help, rather than a source of community. For example, one of the workers I interviewed said that being out of work for so long had filled him with a constant rage. To calm his mind, every night he would pick up his Bible and read a dozen verses. He had given up on the church and what he described as its superficial ways. “I want to go to hear the Word—I don’t want to go to see what you’re wearing,” says the man, 53 and from Flint, Michigan. The other way he copes is going outside for a smoke.
For this man and many like him, there is no one to talk to, no one to rely on. “Nowadays, you got people you really can’t trust, man,” he says. “You can’t call everybody your friend.” As the ties that bind them to others have unraveled, the working class has become an ever lonelier crowd.
The larger context of this isolation and alienation is America’s culture of individualism. It, too, can worsen the despair. Taken to an extreme, self-reliance becomes a cudgel: Those who falter and fail have only themselves to blame. They should have gotten more education. They should have been more prepared. On this score, too, the U.S. deviates from other wealthy nations. America’s frontier spirit of rugged individualism is strong, and it manifests itself differently by race and education level, too. White Americans, for instance, are more likely to see success as the result of individual effort than African Americans are (though not Hispanics). The less educated, particularly less-educated whites, also share this view to a disproportionate degree.
In Stayin’ Alive, his powerful history of the “last days” of the working class, the historian Jefferson Cowie describes how the proud blue-collar identity of previous generations disintegrated during the ’70s. “Liberty has largely been reduced to an ideology that promises economic and cultural refuge from the long arm of the state,” he writes, “while seemingly lost to history is the logic that culminated under the New Deal: that genuine freedom could only happen within a context of economic security.” As working-class solidarity receded, an identity built on racial tribalism often swept in.