Monday, February 22, 2016

Why Are White Death Rates Rising? Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

By ANDREW J. CHERLIN FEB. 22, 2016, New York Times

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IT’S disturbing and puzzling news: Death rates are rising for white, less-educated
Americans. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton reported
in December that rates have been climbing since 1999 for non­-Hispanic whites
age 45 to 54, with the largest increase occurring among the least educated. An
analysis of death certificates by The New York Times found similar trends and
showed that the rise may extend to white women.

Both studies attributed the higher death rates to increases in poisonings
and chronic liver disease, which mainly reflect drug overdoses and alcohol
abuse, and to suicides. In contrast, death rates fell overall for blacks and

Why are whites overdosing or drinking themselves to death at higher rates
than African­-Americans and Hispanics in similar circumstances? Some
observers have suggested that higher rates of chronic opioid prescriptions
could be involved, along with whites’ greater pessimism about their finances.

Yet I’d like to propose a different answer: what social scientists call
reference group theory. The term “reference group” was pioneered by the
social psychologist Herbert H. Hyman in 1942, and the theory was developed
by the Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1950s. It tells us that to
comprehend how people think and behave, it’s important to understand the
standards to which they compare themselves.

How is your life going? For most of us, the answer to that question means
comparing our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead. As children and
adolescents, we closely observed our parents. They were our first reference

And here is one solution to the death­-rate conundrum: It’s likely that
many non­-college-­educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation
that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and
Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer

When whites without college degrees look back, they can often remember
fathers who were sustained by the booming industrial economy of postwar
America. Since then, however, the industrial job market has slowed
significantly. The hourly wages of male high school graduates declined by 14
percent from 1973 to 2012, according to analysis of data from the Economic
Policy Institute. Although high school educated white women haven’t
experienced the same major reversal of the job market, they may look at their
husbands — or, if they are single, to the men they choose not to marry — and
reason that life was better when they were growing up.

African-­Americans, however, didn’t get a fair share of the blue­-collar
prosperity of the postwar period. They may look back to a time when
discrimination deprived their parents of equal opportunities. Many Hispanics
may look back to the lower standard of living their parents experienced in
their countries of origin. Whites are likely to compare themselves to a
reference group that leads them to feel worse off. Blacks and Hispanics
compare themselves to reference groups that may make them feel better off.

The sociologist Timothy Nelson and I observed this phenomenon in
interviews with high­-school­-educated young adult men in 2012 and 2013. A
35-­year­-old white man who did construction jobs said, “It’s much harder for
me as a grown man than it was for my father.” He remembered his father
saying that back when he was 35, “‘I had a house and I had five kids or four
kids.’ You know, ‘Look where I was at.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, Dad, things have

African­-American men were more upbeat. One said: “I think there are
better opportunities now because first of all, the economy’s changing. The
color barrier is not as harsh as it was back then.”

In addition, national surveys show striking racial and ethnic differences in
satisfaction with one’s social standing relative to one’s parents. The General
Social Survey conducted by the research organization NORC at the University
of Chicago has asked Americans in its biennial surveys to compare their
standard of living to that of their parents. In 2014, according to my analysis,
among 25-­ to 54­-year-­olds without college degrees, blacks and Hispanics were
much more positive than whites: 67 percent of African­-Americans and 68
percent of Hispanics responded “much better” or “somewhat better,”
compared with 47 percent of whites.

Those figures represent a reversal from 2000, when whites were more
positive than blacks, 64 percent to 60 percent. (Hispanics were the most
positive in nearly all years.)

But we size ourselves up based on more than just our parents. White
workers historically have compared themselves against black workers, taking
some comfort in seeing a group that was doing worse than them. Now,
however, the decline of racial restrictions in the labor market and the spread of
affirmative action have changed that. Non­-college-­graduate whites in the
General Social Survey are more likely to agree that “conditions for black
people have improved” than are comparable blacks themselves, 68 percent to
53 percent.

Reference group theory explains why people who have more may feel that
they have less. What matters is to whom you are comparing yourself. It’s not
that white workers are doing worse than African-­Americans or Hispanics.

In the fourth quarter of 2015, the median weekly earnings of white men
aged 25 to 54 were $950, well above the same figure for black men ($703) and
Hispanic men ($701). But for some whites — perhaps the ones who account for
the increasing death rate — that may be beside the point. Their main reference
group is their parents’ generation, and by that standard they have little to look
forward to and a lot to lament.

Andrew J. Cherlin is a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University
and the author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the
Working-­Class Family in America.”

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