Why White, Blue-Collar Men Are Dying and What the Church Can Do to Help

depressed man

A study released last week by Princeton Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton revealed a startling trend among white, blue-collar American men. Working with information from Gallup, the two were able to show that the men are dying at a faster rate than any other demographic category in America. In fact, the group as a whole is seeing a growth in their mortality rate unlike anything in recent history.

You can read the entire report here but this is what CNN special correspondent Carina Storrs had to say:

For decades, nearly all Americans — in every age and racial group — have seen decreases in death rates. But in the last nearly 15 years, middle-aged white Americans have been left out, according to a study.

Death rates for white Americans ages 45 to 54 climbed half a percent each year between 1999 and 2013, researchers at Princeton University found using mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the previous two decades, the death rate for this group had dropped by 2% each year. Middle-aged blacks and Hispanics continued to see a 2% annual decline between 1999 and 2013.

“We have come to expect mortality rates in middle age to continue to decline, which they did throughout most of the 20th century…it was really a surprise to see a sustained period when mortality rates actually increased (among middle-aged white Americans),” said Anne Case, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

Deaths related to drugs, alcohol, suicide and liver disease are the cause of the increase, researchers said.

The NY Times had more details :

The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case found.

The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.

“It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” wrote two Dartmouth economists, Ellen Meara and Jonathan S. Skinner, in a commentary to the Deaton-Case analysis to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Wow,” said Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, who was not involved in the research. “This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”

Dr. Deaton had but one parallel. “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,” he said.

While the various researchers are trying to nail down the reasons for the increase, it’s clear that white, blue-collar men are living under stresses unlike anyone else in America. Rod Dreher quotes R.R. Reno of “First Things,” who captures the essence of the struggle these men are facing:

To a great extent, our progressive culture strips ordinary people of almost all settled roles, other than economic ones. This heightens the existential pain of the already harsh economic realities of our globalized economy, which can be very punitive to the poorly educated. Two generations ago, a working class man was often poor or nearly poor, but he could be respected in his neighborhood as a provider for his family, father to his children, law-abiding citizen, coach of a Little League team, and usher in church. The culture that made such a life possible has disintegrated, partly due to large-scale trends in our post-industrial society, but also because of a sustained and ongoing ideological assault on the basic norms for family and community. Death rates are likely to continue to rise for poor Americans. I see no signs that the war on the weak will abate.

Back to Storrs. Later in her piece there’s a more urgent insight:

Ellen Meara, associate professor of healthy policy and clinical practice at the Dartmouth Institute… who wrote an editorial about the article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, called the effect on death rate among middle-aged white Americans “stunning.”

“It is almost like there is this epidemic of hopelessness that needs to be understood”

“This epidemic of hopelessness”–that’s a condition that moves the entire discussion out of the realm of demography, economics and social theory and into the realm of faith. It’s no accident that the decline of America’s churches–particularly in the rural and decaying urban areas where white, uneducated, blue collar men are most likely to live–has played a role in the epidemic of hopelessness now engulfing the group.

There are lots of reasons why churches in those areas struggle, but maybe the most common is that as younger, more educated people have moved to urban centers for employment, they’ve left their churches behind. Without the leadership and financial support more educated parishoners provide, congregations struggle to remain viable. The net result has been a numerical boom for suburban churches while those outside the city limits decline and often die.

There isn’t a simple solution to any of this. But as large suburban churches particularly look for opportunities of expanding their ministries through satellite-type campuses, and grow their brand through constant expansion into more and more suburban areas, it’s worth remembering that there is a desperate group of people nearby, hopeless men, who need ministry, too.


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