Second Life Expectancy Decline May Trigger New Academic Discipline

“White Working Class Studies” Could Reverse Decline, and Also Boost U.S. Economy

WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 8, 2018) – After many years that U.S. life expectancy has continued to climb, a new report says it’s down again, and the answer – as well as boosting the economy – may lie in an ethnic studies discipline called “White Working Class Studies,” argues public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

Increasing our understanding about white working class Americans, a movement originally begun just after the presidential election to better understand why and how 6 out of 10 of our white citizens who do not have a 4-year college degree feel and vote the way they do, and now seen as a way to increase the lifespans of the only U.S. group in which average life expectancy is falling, may even provide a boost to the economy by helping to reverse a trend which is holding back long-overdue growth, says Banzhaf.

Banzhaf’s predictions regarding this new discipline – similar to Black Studies – were widely reported almost a year ago, and were a highlight of a world conference in Prague.

The willingness of people to move from one location to another, primarily to obtain or improve employment, is at an all-time low, with only about 10% of Americans moving each year; less than half the 20% or more who typically moved from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Indeed, in rural America, the percentage of people who moved even just across a county line in 2015 was only about 4%.

Some economists, for example Tyler Cowen, think this is a primary reason why our economy is no longer growing as fast as it did in the past, since people who want to work are less willing to move to areas where suitable employment is much more readily available. For example, LinkedIn wrote in a recent report on the workforce that “manufacturing workers who are having a hard time finding a gig in Cleveland, Detroit or Minneapolis may want to consider looking for jobs on the coasts.”

This lack of mobility hurts not only many of the working poor, but all of us, says Banzhaf, who first called for academics to create white working class studies, similar to the black studies, Hispanic studies, women’s studies, and LGBT studies now so popular at major universities.

The lack of non-professional workers in locations where they are sorely needed is choking off the labor supply and limiting the economic growth that naturally occurs when people and capital cluster together, says David Schleicher, a professor at Yale Law School who has studied the issue.

The Wall Street Journal says that culture is a primary reason who so many white working class Americans who are unemployed or underemployed, especially those in rural areas, do not move to where the jobs are. The Journal concluded that “the lack of mobility has become a drag on the entire U.S. economy.”

It reported that: “beyond the practical difficulties, rural residents and experts say there is another impediment to mobility that is often more difficult to overcome – the growing cultural divide.”

According to recent surveys, the ready acceptance by city residents of immigration, same-sex marriage and “secularism” creates distrust and a cultural barrier strong enough to discourage many moves.

The Journal notes that “economists have tried to measure whether Americans’ eroding trust in one another is damping mobility – such confidence helps ease the transition to a new town – and found signs that this sliding trust may be keeping people from uprooting. . . . Raven Molloy, an economist with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, found in research that states with large declines in overall trust were also places where job-switching had decreased markedly.”

Banzhaf suggests that establishing a new discipline and courses in white working class studies might help both sides to bridge the gap in understanding, interacting, and accepting each other, and thus boost the number of white working class members who move to where good jobs are plentiful. It could also encourage college grads to hire – and then to work better with – those without such a degree.

This is especially true on college campuses where straight white students now readily mix with students they recognize to be black, Hispanic or gay, but may never talk with students knowing that they come from white working class families because the latter are reluctant to talk about their backgrounds, and there are no ethic studies classes where they can easily interact with each other.

Prof. Banzhaf has previously noted that life expectancy – which has always been a reliable indicator of improvement in the human condition – is now sharply declining among white working class Americans, both male and female, although it continues to rise for those with a 4-year degree.

Indeed, mortality is suddenly rising for white middle-class Americans after decades of decline, a startling development for an economically advanced nation. Poor health is becoming more common for each new generation of middle-aged whites without four-year degrees, and they are going downhill faster.

It’s not just a result of economic setbacks, the difficulty of finding jobs, lack of growth in the spending power of their paychecks, etc., he suggests.

We know this because researchers have reported that the death rate of non-Hispanic white middle class Americans had risen steadily since 1999 – in sharp contrast with the death rates of black and Hispanics workers who in many situations suffer from the same economic problems.

No, as researches put it, the cause largely seems to be somewhat different: a “sea of despair” among white working class Americans which all too often leads to needless deaths from so-called “diseases of despair” – drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases, and suicide.

Indeed, one study suggests that white men today are about twice as likely as they were in 1999 to die from one of the “diseases of despair,” while women are about 4 times as likely – even though deaths from drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases and suicide are virtually always preventable.

Banzhaf suggests that, quite logically, if we are going to successfully attack these major problems, we must understand the victims much better: e.g., which government programs are working and which ones are not, perhaps because they run aground on attitudes, customs, and traditions of working class whites.

These attitudes are likely to be the same ones which caused so many white working class folks to vote for Trump, and which are now a major factor in discouraging them from moving to where the jobs are – something which would both help them and help the overall economy as well.

Studying to better understand this important segment of our society – one which is larger and has a greater impact than blacks, Hispanics, and gays – would pay major dividends, says Banzhaf, in understanding, better predicting, and influencing elections, improving the overall economy, and in helping to reverse the tragic and unnecessary decline in life expectancy caused in part by the diseases of despair.