White People Are Killing Themselves Rather Than Be Poor

The Socio-Economic Underpinnings Of A Suicide Epidemic


According to the Guardian, “financial despair” is a major reason that suicide is on the rise for middle-aged white Americans, specifically issues related to “medical debts, impoverishment and the prospect of a bleak retirement.” A recent study found that this despair is US-specific:

In the UK, the mortality rate for middle-aged people dropped by one third over the same period. “This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,” the study said. …

Growing economic inequality and increasing financial struggles are intertwined with other issues such as health and addiction. Some people living on low incomes hesitate to go to the doctor even if they have medical insurance because of the cost of out-of-pocket expenses. Chronic conditions can go untreated and become debilitating.

Pain is a driver of alcohol abuse and addiction to opioid painkillers, which in turn is feeding a growing heroin epidemic in the US. Stress and mental health issues are sometimes driven by constant worries about money and fear for the future as growing numbers of Americans look into a financial abyss at retirement.

As we recently discussed, the prospect of retirement can indeed be a terrifying one. So can the shame of not having done better than one’s parents did, which is somewhat particular to our individualistic, boot-strap-y nation — our obsession with the idea that being “middle class” is a marker of virtue and that to have not have superseded the previous generation is to have failed.

“Probably the biggest reason [behind the suicide spike] is socio-economic. We have about 150,000 people in our state that don’t have access to any type of healthcare, which is a major issue. We have a lot of people living in poverty. Wages are not going up at the same pace as rising health costs, rising cost of living and inflation,” Rosston said.

“Definitely you see a lot of people that all of a sudden they hit 45 or 50 and they don’t see retirement as a bonus. They see something that they’re going to have struggle with and they’re not going to be able to retire.”

Sullivan sees that as tied up with “the expectation that as a middle-aged white person you would outdo your parents economically and socially, and that didn’t occur”.

As a nation, ever since we decided government was a problem rather than an answer to a problem, we’ve shifted much of the burden of creating and maintaining a social safety net onto business. That means:

Add in the fact that we tell ourselves that if we simply work hard enough we will succeed, and it’s no wonder people are depressed. Lofty expectations – dingy reality = disappointment.

What possible solutions exist?


The Feds have taken a greater role in expanding access to health care, and though the ACA hasn’t been an unqualified success, it’s certainly been a huge help. An encouraging 12.7 million people signed up for Obamacare for 2016. Perhaps we could get over some of our Reagan-inspired mistrust of government help and implement other national solutions to serious, widespread problems?

Not bloody likely, I know.


People who belong to unions are far more likely to enjoy benefits such as paid leave, higher wages, and pensions. Are union members less likely to suffer from this kind of fatal disappointment? I’d be curious to know, since I could imagine they would be less driven to despair by their financial circumstances. Also, the solidarity / community part could help a person feel less alone.

I’ve made the argument before in more detail here: so many people want to make America “great” again. Well, when America was “great,” unions were strong, looking out for individuals so that individuals had to do less of the exhausting and difficult work of looking out for themselves.

A marked increase in union membership is not bloody likely, either. But wouldn’t it be crazy if it could actually save lives?

Why is this epidemic hitting white people specifically so hard? The experts can only speculate. One factor they suggest plays a role is optimism:

black Americans are by far the most optimistic racial group. Most optimistic of all poor groups are blacks in poverty.

By contrast, “poor whites are by far the least optimistic group.”

The Atlantic expands on this theme:

it would be easy to assume a deep level of pessimism and anxiety among African Americans and Latinos, particularly compared to white Americans. … Yet a recent poll finds that for all of the challenges they face, African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be optimistic than their white counterparts, both about their personal station in life and the future of the country more broadly.

Of the white people polled, “more than four out of five respondents between the ages of 51 and 64 said The Dream is suffering.” People of color tend to see things differently.

By contrast, 43 percent of African Americans and 36 percent of Latinos said The Dream is alive and well. The same two groups, along with Asian Americans, were also more likely to say that The Dream was still achievable for those who are willing to work for it, and they reported being more optimistic than white Americans about their own future.

The only real antidote to despair is hope. I don’t know how you help people who have given up find something to be optimistic about. But I do know that a nation whose people are killing itself is a nation in crisis, and crisis demands action.

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