Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Feeling Really Bad by Comparison
On January 17th, in my They’re Angry and Dying Younger blog, noting the constant, unabating erosion of American middle class earning power (particularly in the world of skilled blue collar workers), I wrote: “The “participation rate” (those working or seeking jobs in the U.S. labor market) for white males 25 to 54 is the lowest since such statistics have been kept. GlobalEconomicAnalysis.com…
“For that cadre of white American workers, life expectancy rates are yet another casualty. But these statistics also expand to include all middle aged white people in general, male or female. ‘While non-whites, younger people and people in other countries are seeing falling death rates, a new study shows the reverse is happening for white men and women in the US aged 45-54… Covering the period from 1999 to 2013, the study by Princeton University researchers says it is particularly acute for those without a college education… ‘This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,’ the authors of their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.’ BBC.com.”
This particular category of workers found themselves slammed by the big recession, outsourced or automated out of a job without the kind of new skills needed to compete in a modern economy. Studies have shown declining physical and mental health, a growing suicide rate, soaring drug addiction and alcoholism rates, higher obesity rates in this age group, and the clear overall impact of financial stress. But the numbers for younger and minority workers are just fine, thank you. Why?
Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin, author of Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, thinks there just might a reason that many mainstream researchers have just plain missing. Writing Op-Ed piece for the February 21st New Times, he explains: “Yet I’d like to propose a different answer: what social scientists call reference group theory. The term ‘reference group’ was pioneered by the social psychologist Herbert H. Hyman in 1942, and the theory was developed by the Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1950s. It tells us that to comprehend how people think and behave, it’s important to understand the standards to which they compare themselves.
“How is your life going? For most of us, the answer to that question means comparing our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead. As children and adolescents, we closely observed our parents. They were our first reference group.
“And here is one solution to the death-rate conundrum: It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.
“When whites without college degrees look back, they can often remember fathers who were sustained by the booming industrial economy of postwar America. Since then, however, the industrial job market has slowed significantly. The hourly wages of male high school graduates declined by 14 percent from 1973 to 2012, according to analysis of data from the Economic Policy Institute. Although high school educated white women haven’t experienced the same major reversal of the job market, they may look at their husbands — or, if they are single, to the men they choose not to marry — and reason that life was better when they were growing up.
“African-Americans, however, didn’t get a fair share of the blue-collar prosperity of the postwar period. They may look back to a time when discrimination deprived their parents of equal opportunities. Many Hispanics may look back to the lower standard of living their parents experienced in their countries of origin. Whites are likely to compare themselves to a reference group that leads them to feel worse off. Blacks and Hispanics compare themselves to reference groups that may make them feel better off.
“The sociologist Timothy Nelson and I observed this phenomenon in interviews with high-school-educated young adult men in 2012 and 2013. A 35-year-old white man who did construction jobs said, ‘It’s much harder for me as a grown man than it was for my father.’ He remembered his father saying that back when he was 35, “‘I had a house and I had five kids or four kids.’ You know, ‘Look where I was at.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, Dad, things have changed.’”… African-American men were more upbeat. One said: ‘I think there are better opportunities now because first of all, the economy’s changing. The color barrier is not as harsh as it was back then.’
“In addition, national surveys show striking racial and ethnic differences in satisfaction with one’s social standing relative to one’s parents. The General Social Survey conducted by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago has asked Americans in its biennial surveys to compare their standard of living to that of their parents. In 2014, according to my analysis, among 25- to 54-year-olds without college degrees, blacks and Hispanics were much more positive than whites: 67 percent of African-Americans and 68 percent of Hispanics responded ‘much better’ or ‘somewhat better,’ compared with 47 percent of whites… Those figures represent a reversal from 2000, when whites were more positive than blacks, 64 percent to 60 percent. (Hispanics were the most positive in nearly all years.)”
Now superimpose those numbers on the current presidential election, and you can begin to see why there is a Donald Trump juggernaut in the GOP that has stymied the traditionalists. He has harnessed this white middle class anger by promising to go back to our prior days of greatness. In short, he is promising, albeit in a rather abstract and ill-defined spate of generalities, to let that increasingly marginalized class of Americans recapture that expectation they once had of living at least as well as their parents.
The truth is that none of these political palliatives are going to fix the problem in a world where skills and labor costs are determined on a global level. There isn’t enough of a financially-solid American consumer based to build economic growth without foreign buyers. Further, we have become adjusted to lower-cost manufacturers produced by foreign labor or labor-saving automation. The hard answers involve a strong investment in ourselves, which unfortunately falls into categories only government can accelerate, especially in education, infrastructure (including environmental) and research. Instead, we are slashing those investments, making education increasingly unaffordable and putting government money into defense (and not exactly the kind of defense that deploys well against terrorism) and tax breaks for those at the top.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if the life expectancy rates for those in this segment of the middle are falling, we seem to be adapting policies that don’t have a shot of reversing that trend anytime soon.