Politics & Policy

Working-Class–White Deaths Are a Cultural Problem

(Konstantin Sutyagin/Dreamstime)

Middle-aged, working-class white Americans are killing themselves — committing suicide and dying of drug- and alcohol-related illnesses at such a staggering pace that the overall mortality rate for white men and women without a college degree actually increased from 1999 to 2013, an outcome that the Washington Post notes is “unheard of in recent decades” for such a large demographic in such an advanced nation, “with the exception of Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The charts are sobering. First, contrast America’s death rates with those of comparable countries:

Next, look at the causes of death, which show dramatic increases in poisonings (including drug-related deaths), suicides, and liver disease:

In fact, the death rates from poisoning, suicide, and liver disease are increasing for every working-class white age demographic between ages 30 and 64.

It’s not hard to discern why. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart documented the decline of America’s white working class in excruciating detail. While college-educated white families remained relatively intact, prosperous, and connected to church and their communities, the white working class suffered from family fragmentation, job loss, and declining religious and civic engagement.

I grew up on the edge of the “Big White Ghetto” that my colleague Kevin Williamson described so beautifully early last year. I’ve seen the decline with my own eyes — the men and women hooked on opiates while living off questionable disability claims, parents slowly drinking themselves to death to escape failure and loss, and revolving-door relationships where neither partner can trust the other to remain faithful — much less to build a life and family together.

#share#While the economic challenges of working-class voters are well documented, the cultural challenges are just as notable. At every turn, the cultural aristocrats cause harm. Mocking poor whites is among the last acceptable forms of bigotry. Even the white working-class voters struggling with declining wages, declining health, and increasing despair are derided as somehow “privileged.” Those who speak for them are labeled bigots. Meanwhile, people keep dying, and families fracture.

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This is more than just mocking suffering, though — it’s celebrating the disease while rejecting the cure. Self-indulgence is the animating force behind the sexual revolution, and the sexual revolution is gutting the working class. As Murray notes in his book, cultural progressives flood the nation with messages celebrating hedonism and sexual experimentation even as they tend to preserve their own wealth and power through remarkably restrained and disciplined personal lives — getting married, remaining faithful, and investing in their children. They don’t practice the hedonism they so loudly preach.

There is no simple path out of despair. There is no government fix — though the government would do well to stop causing so much harm.

And what of the church, the institution that has been proven to provide stability, joy, and a measure of true hope to the poor and vulnerable? It’s under siege, pressed at every turn by a culture that rejects faith, yet offers nothing meaningful in its stead. When I lived in Kentucky, I belonged to a church that made a huge effort to reach those who were falling through the cracks — the folks living on disability in the local trailer park, the single mom finalizing her second divorce and living with her new boyfriend, the young teen who was struggling to finish high school and could never even dream of college. While we could reach some, we couldn’t reach most.

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As a culture, we make living hard and dying easy. It’s hard to buckle down in school and stretch to make it through community college. It’s hard to start at minimum wage and work your way up. It’s hard to stick with a marriage when times are difficult, the rent check is precarious, and you’re fighting every single night. And it’s hard to say no to forgetting your pain in a bottle, or with a pill, or in another person’s arms. In the end, people live with just enough religion to haunt their consciences and not enough faith to change their lives.

There is no simple path out of despair. There is no government fix — though the government would do well to stop causing so much harm. At the heart of the biblical concept of repentance is the notion of “turning,” or changing course. We as a nation have much repenting to do — of easy choices, of fashionable mockery, and, above all, of watching and doing nothing while our neighbors suffer, stagger, and ultimately fall into addiction and death.

— David French is an attorney and staff writer at National Review.

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