Again and again, studies show that the richer wealthy Americans become, the shorter the rest of us live.
What do the folks at the U.S. Census Bureau do between the census they run every 10 years? All sorts of annual surveys, on everything from housing costs to retail sales.
The most depressing of these — at least this century — may be the sampling that looks at the incomes average Americans are earning.
The latest Census Bureau income stats, released in mid-September, show that most Americans are running on a treadmill, getting nowhere fast. The nation’s median households pocketed 2.3 percent fewer real dollars in 2018 than they earned in 2000.
America’s most affluent households have no such problem. Real incomes for the nation’s top 5 percent of earners have increased 13 percent since 2000, to an average $416,520.
The new Census numbers don’t tell us how much our top 1 percent is pulling down. But IRS tax return data shows that top 1 percenters are now pulling down over 20 percent of all household income — essentially triple their share from a half-century ago.
Should we care about any of this? Is increasing income at the top having an impact on ordinary Americans? You could say so, suggests a just-released Government Accountability Office study.
Rising inequality, this federal study makes clear, is killing us. Literally.
The disturbing new GAO research tracks how life has played out for Americans who happened to be between the ages of 51 and 61 in 1992. That cohort’s wealthiest 20 percent turned out to do fairly well. Over three-quarters of them — 75.5 percent — went on to find themselves still alive and kicking in 2014, the most recent year with full stats available.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, it’s a different story.
Among Americans in the poorest 20 percent of this age group, under half — 47.6 percent — were still waking up every morning in 2014. In other words, the poorest of the Americans the GAO studied had just a 50-50 chance of living into 2014. The most affluent had a three-in-four chance.
“The inequality of life expectancy,” as economist Gabriel Zucman puts it, “is exploding in the U.S.”
The new GAO numbers ought to surprise no one. Over recent decades, a steady stream of studies have shown consistent links between rising inequality and shorter lifespans.
The trends we see in the United States reflect similar dynamics worldwide, wherever income and wealth are concentrating. The more unequal a society becomes, the less healthy the society.
On the other hand, the nations with the narrowest gaps between rich and poor turn out to have the longest lifespans.
And the people living shorter lives don’t just include poorer people. Middle-income people in deeply unequal societies live shorter lives than middle-income people in more equal societies.
What can explain how inequality makes this deadly impact? We don’t know for sure. But many epidemiologists — scientists who study the health of populations — point to the greater levels of stress in deeply unequal societies. That stress wears down our immune systems and leaves us more vulnerable to a wide variety of medical maladies.
We have, of course, no pill we can take to eliminate inequality. But we can fight for public policies that more equally distribute America’s income and wealth. Other nations have figured out how to better share the wealth. Why can’t we?
Excerpt, YesMagazine, Oct 2019
Why do Americans find suicide so hard to discuss honestly, let alone ameliorate? Consider the demographics of suicide. Men are three times more at risk for deadly self-destruction than women. Middle-agers three times more so than teenagers. White people more than twice as much as people of color. Rural and small-town residents nearly twice as much as residents of large cities.
Male, White, middle American, middle-aged… self-destruction most afflicts powerful and mainstream groups. Yet, it is also stigmatized as a sign of mental illness, weakness, irrationality, and the need for “help.” That a stigmatized behavior most afflicts a dominant population explains why authorities and media commentators remain reluctant to face suicide’s realities.
Instead, most invoke the old American tradition of blaming social and health problems on immigrants, minorities, gays, and youth—or whatever powerless outgroup is easiest to target at the time. They invoke popular-psychology notions that have become strikingly disconnected from real behaviors.
A similar trend plays out in reports of suicide. In addition to mischaracterizing suicide as a singular problem of youth (which it isn’t; adult age groups have much higher rates), media-quotable authorities advance superficial explanations that youth suicides are caused by youths’ own social media and troubled mindsets.
For example, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge regularly issues op-eds claiming teens are singularly miserable and self-destructive because of popular culture, smartphones, and online interactions. College counselors likewise invented a “student mental health crisis” (despite the fact that undergraduate violence and suicide rates are unusually low) to win more funding, just as psychiatric interests did to fill beds in overbuilt hospitals. Their failures to cite numbers accurately, analyze larger contexts, and predict trends have not deterred major media from splashing sensational nonsense.
In fact, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 16-year-old is three times more likely to have a 45-year-old parent die from suicide or self-destruction than the other way around. Losing a parent or close adult relative sharply increases children’s and teens’ odds of depression and suicidal ideation. Yet, we don’t talk about that.
If leaders and interest groups were serious about investigating America’s epidemic of suicide and self-destructive behaviors, they would find fascinating, important developments with lessons from our past and implications for the future.
The broader category of self-destructive deaths includes deaths formally ruled as suicides; those ruled “undermined as to intent” (indicating suspected suicides); and mainly self-inflicted deaths ruled as “accidents” from three principal methods indicating suicidal inclination: guns, poisons, and hangings. These death categories are combined here into “suicidal deaths.”
It isn’t teenagers or senior citizens driving the worst trends and suffering the highest rates.
Contrary to media reports, experts, and interest-group campaigns, it isn’t teenagers or senior citizens driving the worst trends and suffering the highest rates. Among teenagers and the elderly, suicidal deaths have remained stable, according to the CDC, falling from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, then rising somewhat over the last decade.
The trends are remarkable. Before 2000, seniors 65 and older suffered the worst suicide levels of any age; today, they have the second lowest rate and make up only 10 percent of suicidal deaths. Teens age 15-19 had the worst level of self-destructive deaths before 1980 but now have the lowest rate, as well as the lowest rate of deaths certified by medical examiners as suicide. Today, persons under age 20 account for just 3 percent of all suicidal deaths.
The most worrisome self-destruction trends by far afflict those people in between. For ages 25 to 64, suicidal deaths in all categories have escalated dramatically to record high levels over the last quarter century. Those age 20 to 24 show smaller but still disturbing increases.
Trends among teenagers do not resemble those of their parents. I calculated the mathematical correlation between suicidal death rates for teenagers and those age 35 to 64 over the last 50 years and found that it is small, indicating little relationship. The correlation is even less for suicidal death trends among teenagers versus young adults ages 20 to 24 and those 25 to 34.
Instead, unexpectedly, teen trends have closely tracked trends among their grandparents. (The mathematical correlation between teenage and age 65+ suicidal death rates is +0.87 on a scale of -1.00 to +1.00, or nearly perfect.) The odds that this is a coincidence are less than 1 in 1,000; such tight correlations are practically unheard-of in social science.
Do today’s grandparents and grandchildren—generations a half-century apart that differ sharply in demographics and experiences—harbor surprising commonalities?
In some families, the connection is direct. A record 2.7 million grandparents directly care for their grandchildren, and vice versa. These grandparent-grandchild ties where addiction, mental health, and imprisonment afflict parents may be helping families most at risk.
Another, larger explanation for the closely related teen-elder patterns may lie in what pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s Le Suicide (1897) called the “collective currents” affecting certain populations and times. Suicide, Durkheim found, is lowest among populations who occupy middle-ground cultures affording conditions between harsh authoritarian regulation and a chaotic lack of norms.
America’s breakdown is not occurring at its edges, but in its middle.
American seniors’ and teenagers’ low rates of self-destruction may relate to their generational times and circumstances. They sandwich baby boomer and Gen-X Americans, who have proven extraordinarily high-risk for pathologies, from crime and addiction to suicide and reactionary politics.
Baby boomers’ and Gen-Xers’ troubles remain largely unstudied. Three possible 1960s and 1970s factors in their greater self-destruction include rapidly increased family breakup; the explosion in deadly, addictive barbiturate drugs; and the Vietnam War. These generations’ chaotic upbringings and difficulty adapting to unprecedented racial and technological changes have weakened their sense of community, fostered rising authoritarianism, and pushed American society to the brink of disintegration.
In contrast, the generational currents influencing senior citizens and younger millennials were different. Seniors, who reached adolescence in the 1950s, were raised in more segregated societies, have formed communities largely isolated from racial change, and have benefited from social insurance and medical investments. Only recently, as more troubled boomers aged into senior years, have crime, addiction, and suicide started rising among the elderly.
Similarly, teenagers’ troubles fell in the 30 years from 1975 to 2005 as boomers and Xers aged out adolescence and were replaced by Millennials. Millennials are the most urban, racially integrated, technologically comfortable generation ever, one accustomed to change.
However, teenagers cannot be expected to survive severely troubled parents indefinitely. As suicidal behaviors among their parents rose in the 1980s and 1990s and soared in the 2000s, teen suicidality began rising from record lows after 2007.
What America’s suicide trends may be telling us, then, is that older, racially and religiously homogenous cultures with strong group identity that still allowed some individual freedom, such as America of the 1950s and senior citizen communities today, are less likely to breed self-destruction.
Modern teenagers’ situation is different. They cannot recreate their grandparents’ tribal past and isolated enclaves, nor would we want them to. Rather, the young appear to be forging new cultures involving greater diversity, urban living, and online interconnections with their own identities and regulations.
Instead of incessant panics depicting youth as harbingers of mental and social breakdown, we need to study what forces are keeping teenage suicidal death rates low (just 19 deaths per 100,000 population age 15 to 19 in 2017), somewhat below those of their grandparents (24) and well below that of their parents’ generation (55).
The ideal may be to explore combining the interdependent benefits of traditional, homogenous cultures with the global connections of modern multicultures. America’s breakdown is not occurring at its edges, but in its middle. That is why it appears so worrisome—and why the solutions before our eyes are so hard to see.