Epidemic of Deaths of Middle-Aged Whites Linked to Economic Insecurity

A new study showing a stunning rise in middle-aged white mortality is a terrible indictment of national economic policies that have ignored long-term unemployment of older workers, the loss of traditional pensions, and rampant age discrimination in employment.

Two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who recently won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics,and Anne Case, have published a study  in which they document a “remarkable”  increase in mortality for whites aged 45 to 54  after a long period of decline. By contrast, the authors write, the mortality rate has continued to decline for middle-aged whites in other rich countries and also for blacks and Hispanics in the United States.*

The authors estimate that a half a million deaths of middle-aged whites would have been avoided from 1999‒2013 if the mortality rate had continued to decline at its previous (1979‒1998) rate of about two percent per year. They compare this loss  to the number of lives lost in the U.S. AIDS epidemic.

Middle-aged whites are dying in a misery-fueled “epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse, alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”

The authors say the reasons for the epidemic are only “partly understood” but they point to several possible factors, including  “economic insecurity” and “widening wealth inequality.”  They specifically note the U.S. has moved primarily to defined-contribution pensions, which are subject to stock market risk, while, traditional defined benefit pensions are still the norm in Europe.  A traditional pension, along with lifetime savings and Social Security, once were the cornerstone of retirement in the United States.

In my book, Betrayed: The legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace,” I discuss the devastating impact of the Great Recession and chronic unemployment due to age discrimination on the health and welfare of older workers.  While ignoring these problems, I note, Congress enacted policies that encouraged the adoptionof risky defined contribution pensions – also known as 401K plans – and did nothing to stop the decline of the traditional defined benefit pensions. Studies show that  half of older Americas today are economically vulnerable due to a loss of savings in the recession, their  inability to find work as a result of age discrimination, and the lack of an employer-sponsored pension.

The authors predict more problems ahead if U.S. workers “perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.” [Read more…]