Deaths of Despair

The warning bell sounded in 2014: a down dip in the ever-rising American lifespan, which was 50 years, on average, in 1900, and up close to 80 years into the 21st century. Then something happened and kept happening – not to the very old-agers, but in mid-life. It was a white-working-guy disease that hit women too, but not everybody – not African-Americans the same way, not college graduates at all. It was a sharp surge in desperate death by suicide, often with alcohol or opioids. “Deaths of Despair,” they are called now, each one a message in a bottle about pain, neglect, work, and well-being in America.

Benjamin West’s “Cave of Despair”

An outline appears of an “underlying condition” in our country. Our guests this hour pin-pointed evidence of an untold story five years ago, in the uptick of self-inflicted death. What they located was a surge of suicide in the 2010s. It’s been centered among dropouts from the white working class; mostly men, self-medicating by drugs and alcohol to the point of self-destruction. These are people adrift at mid-life, beyond the consolations of work, family, church, or neighborhood. And in the year 2017 alone, there were 158,000 of them who opted out (more Americans than have died as of this week in the COVID epidemic). Anne Case and Angus Deaton are senior economists at Princeton – Angus was a Nobel Prize winner in 2015. Deaths of Despair is the morbidly enthralling book they researched and wrote together. It is not economics, exactly: more like a detective novel.

Guest List
Anne Case
Economist at Princeton.
Angus Deaton
Economist at Princeton.

Related Content