Life Expectancy Is Down, Suicides Are Up, And Americans Continue To Struggle
Published on June 17, 2018
There is a lot of good economic news these day. Black unemployment is at historic lows. Unemployment overall continues to drop. The United States is now the fastest growing industrialized nation on the planet. Steel mills are reopening. Indian tech companies are announcing they are bringing their operations stateside and hiring thousands of American workers.
There is also a lot of very bad news that provides some deep insight into how perilous remains the economic status of many American workers.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease control announced that suicide rates in the United States have sky rocketed over the past decade. Since 1999 the national suicide rate has risen 28%. Every state but Nevada has seen an increase. Translated into raw numbers that means in 2016, the last year through which the study ran, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives.
This information comes on the heels of data that has been accumulating for years showing just how desperate Americans are and how difficult their lives have become. We have accepted as part of our national mythology for generations now that our standard of living is constantly improving and that with every passing year we are more prosperous and more secure.
Not anymore. American life expectancy is now declining. The data shows that for years now Americans have been dying younger. The average life expectancy of Americans is now 78.7 years, significantly lower than the average life expectancy in other industrialized nations.
That is the average across the entire nation. A closer look shows that parts of the country are doing much worse. The average age of death in Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota is 66.8 years. Big chunks of Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia are not much better off. In fact, in large portions of the United States people die at roughly the same age as they do in Iraq or North Korea.
When sociologists look at the causes of this dramatic and terrify8ing phenomenon they see large numbers of death from suicide, from opioid abuse and from what amounts to despair. These are the same kinds of deaths we saw in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. These are the clear indicators of a population hanging on economically by its fingernails and steadily losing the will to survive.
Whatever the statistics, the life of the average American is not good. Records numbers of American households cannot handle an unexpected bill of $400 without borrowing money. (See Michael Hackmer's excellent four-part series on the structural problems of the American economy in this magazine.) More adult children are living at home with their parents than at any time in our history since the late 1800's. Many older Americans simply cannot retire. They will be forced to work until they die.
All of this is the product of a generation of failed economic policy. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have assured us for decades that their policies of free trade and globalization will make us wealthier and happier. They have not. They have gutted our economy, driven us to ruin and benefited only that tiny, wealthy minority, which controls the multinational corporations reaping the profits from virtual slave labor in sweat shops in Asia and exhausted American workers juggling three jobs without benefits here at home.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Brownsville, Pennsylvania in Southwestern Pennsylvania to do some family history research. My father's family is from the area, but I had been away for a while.
Brownsville is a virtual ghost town, a sea of abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses. The unemployment rate is astronomical. The average home in the area sells for less than $70,000 and is over sixty years old. This is a community of hard working, patriotic Americans desperate for work and wondering why their government abandoned them.
Last week I made a trip to Manhattan on business. The area around Central Park is awash in new construction as the race to build ever more luxury condominium towers continues. While the average New Yorker struggles to pay the bills and find affordable housing, the condominiums in these towers are being sold overwhelmingly to wealthy foreigners who purchase them as investments and live in them only short periods of time during the year. According to the Census Bureau, in fact, almost 60% of the apartments and condos in this area sit vacant at least ten months out of the year.
This is the economy in which we live, one in which the bulk of Americans struggle to hang on, and increasingly lose that struggle, while a global elite becomes ever more fabulously wealthy. The fight to change this, to restore balance and to place the welfare of average Americans above that of a tiny, powerful minority is perhaps the defining fight of our time.
In the wake of the recently concluded G-7 summit, the bulk of press coverage has been focused on the extent to which President Trump may have offended the boy Prime Minister of Canada, Trudeau, or the petulant French President Macron. Maybe, just maybe we ought to focus on something much more fundamental and infinitely more frightening than the possibility that either one of these gentlemen had his feelings hurt.
Maybe we ought to focus on the truly terrifying possibility that we do not succeed in redressing the imbalances in the global economy, that we do not make the necessary change, that we continue down the same path on which we have been for nearly forty years. That is what ought to keep us all awake at night. This economy is killing us, and we are running out of time.