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The chattering classes are all agog to learn from two Princeton economists that white working-class America has been having an even harder time of it than was suspected. To wit, lower-educated white folks aged 45 to 54 have been dying off at sharply higher rates; those who aren’t dying in their middle years are experiencing chronic pain at unprecedented rates.

White People Dying Younger

White People Dying Younger Because of…Moral Turpitude? Give Us a Break—Peter Laarman

The Princeton study finds that the 25% rise in death rates among middle-aged whites has been triggered not so much by rises in diabetes or heart disease as by big jumps in suicides and substance abuse. The only comparable spike in U.S. death rates occurred during the horrific early phase of the AIDS pandemic.

Fortunately, at least for those within the chattering classes, life expectancy–and good health expectancy–continue to rise among well-educated white people.

Most c-class commentators, including the New York Times editorial board, are taking a sharp breath over this despairing news but are not rushing to conclusions about what must be done.

First Things boss editor R.R. Reno plunged right in to declare that the grim reaper mowing down white folks is, in fact, moral turpititude.

Not so the fearless fusilladiers at First Things: boss editor R.R. Reno plunged right in to declare that the grim reaper mowing down white folks is, in fact, moral turpititude.

Here is Reno mansplaining to us what’s going on:

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I don’t find myself baffled. For the last few decades, cultural leaders have been waging a war on the weak. Their goal is to dismantle traditional norms and rules for family life. They push to dismantle gender roles and other foundational categories that ordinary people use to orient themselves and make sense out of their lives. They advocate for drug legalization and doctor-assisted suicide as well. The upshot: reliable guides toward a normal life are removed, and potentially destructive behaviors that rich people either avoid or discretely manage are normalized. The most vulnerable pay the cost.

​I say that Reno “mansplains” because he is really, really concerned, to the point of obsession, with the breakdown of gender roles​: “Having a sense of oneself as a man or a woman gives us a place to stand in the world,” whereas the “blatant denial of gender differences adds to the disorientation of American’s working class.”

Ah, so that’s what’s got working America gasping for breath! It’s not that good-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector of the economy have pretty much evaporated; it’s not that a majority of the Americans who work now make less than $30,000 per year for their trouble; it’s not that service sector employers have created a wretched temp economy in which wage workers can’t plan and can’t enjoy a normal personal life because their work schedules are constantly shifting; it’s not that involuntary part-time work is at an all-time high; it’s not that the earning prospects for many jobs are so pitiful that unprecedented numbers of workers have simply stopped looking; it’s not that inflation-adjusted income for households headed by someone with only a high-school education have fallen by almost 20% since 2008; it’s not that low-income people are still often shut out of needed preventive health care services, even under Obamacare; and it’s not that people within America’s lumpenproletariat are constantly being harassed by predatory lenders and debt collectors.

No, it’s not those stressors. It’s morality.

Reno allows that the “harsh economic realities of our globalized economy” may have something to do with the spectre of sickness and death stalking the majority America’s white people (yes, a majority of America’s whites have to do real work – and over a third of same earn less than $15/hour). But Reno still insists that at the heart of the “war on the weak” is a “a sustained and ongoing ideological assault on the basic norms for family and community.” White folks’ health is going from bad to worse because kids from working class backgrounds aren’t being given a “functional language to talk about what it means to be a man or woman.”

This line of argument might work for camp followers of the moralizing approach going back to Bill Bennett (a compulsive gambler, it turns out), Charles Murray, and Thomas Sowell. But Reno opens a huge hole in his argument by analogizing the 15-year spike in death rates for middle-aged U.S. whites to similar sharp spikes in mortality in post-World War II Europe and in post-1989 Russia. Quite obviously, the widespread failure-to-thrive in bombed-out postwar societies and again following the “free market” shock treatment administered to the Russians in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse was all about basic economic stress. It had nothing to do with men not knowing how to be men or women not knowing how to be women.

In view of the powerful and interrelated economic and psychic shocks experienced by America’s working people over the past 35 years, it’s simply preposterous to argue that the afflictions facing today’s white working-class Americans are of an essentially different nature from those suffered by post-war Europeans or by the vast majority of Russians in the years after 1989. Of course, hard-pressed Black people have been subjected to the moralizing treatment for a long, long time. Now, apparently, it’s white people’s turn.


Peter Laarman
Religion Dispatches