A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Working-class fatalities don’t merit media coverage?

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Dec. 3, 4 or 5

The mortality rate for white, non-Hispanic Americans between 45 and 54 years old who didn’t go to college has risen half a percent every year between 1999 and 2013, according to new research. Reversing a long trend, that means that some 500,000 extra deaths occurred during those 15 years.

Compare that to the well-reported conclusion by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that about 22 veterans commit suicide every day – almost one an hour. That catastrophe translates to about 8,000 a year, or 120,000 over 15 years.

Four times as many white working people perished over the same period, according to the research – “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

Why isn’t this on newspapers’ front pages or the top of broadcast news shows?

For weeks.

Arguably, this astonishing revelation is the result of another version of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), only one of class, not war.

What’s killing these Americans isn’t terrorism or Ebola, but suicide or the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.

And those circumstances in turn stem from joblessness and hopelessness. Again, this is about economic class.

Case and Deaton show that the death rates for these middle-age whites went up annually by 22 percent among those with a high school education or less – increasing by 134 deaths per 100,000 people. (In contrast, mortality rates for the middle-aged college-educated declined.)

As construction and factory jobs vanished and wages stagnated, many blue-collar workers apparently turned to alcohol and drugs to deaden their despair. Wages for men at the bottom 20 percent of incomes have fallen by more than 30 percent since the late ‘60s, and income inequality has soared. So the typical white worker gets about what they earned 42 years ago, and since then life expectancy dropped as the disappointed unemployed (and underemployed) became casualties to cirrhosis or suicide.

Apologists such as Ben Boychuk in the Los Angeles Daily News excuse the tragic trend by blaming the victims. Boychuk wrote of a “profound shift in the culture” during that time. He said that 1 of 9 Americans live on government payments from welfare while family life has deteriorated and “religion, once a source of community support, continues to wane.” He added, with lives losing meaning, it’s unsurprising that more white Americans resort to “booze, drugs, video games, porn or whatever else dulls the pain.”

However, other nations have responded to such news not by criticizing or ignoring victims of rotten economies, but by helping them with programs such as truly universal health care, free education, adequate unemployment insurance, better pay, etc. But not the United States, which because of bad politics, not bad policy, is failing to provide assistance where it’s needed.

Most media had a ho-hum, oh-well attitude, but there were a few exceptions. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times said the phenomenon was like “the collapse in Russian life expectancy after the fall of communism.

“We’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream,” he wrote, “and are coping badly with its failure to come true.”

Indeed, working-class Americans grew up thinking we were the nation’s backbone, and we’d have better lives than previous generations. Now the feeling is not just being taken for granted but being discarded and forgotten.

Politicians are leading that forgetfulness. Republican leaders are virtually disregarding this heartbreak, and the Democratic Party has yet to recover from decades of abandoning the white working class to concentrate instead on using ‘identity politics” to appeal to minorities, woman and the young.

That may change. Hillary Clinton recently spoke about the study, and Bernie Sanders has repeatedly addressed this in particular and class issues in general during his campaign.

But organized labor and progressives across the board must demand more media attention and confront – and celebrate – the working class to better unite Americans with common interests and common purpose.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King said about white working-class Americans in 1968, shortly before he was killed, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.”

[PICTURED: illustration.]

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