“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” -Proverbs 13:12
I’ve been reading a spate of articles for over a year now about the sudden increase in the rate of morbidity amongst middle- aged White Americans, and Vox published yet another earlier today:
In 2015, a blockbuster study came to a surprising conclusion: Middle-aged white Americans are dying younger for the first time in decades, despite positive life expectancy trends in other wealthy countries and other segments of the US population.
The research, by Princeton University’s Anne Case and Angus Deaton, highlighted the links between economic struggles, suicides, and alcohol and drug overdoses.
Since then, Case and Deaton have been working to more fully explain their findings.
They’ve now come to a compelling conclusion: It’s complicated. There’s no single reason for this disturbing increase in the mortality rate, but a toxic cocktail of factors.
In a new 60-page paper, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st Century,” out in draft form in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity Thursday, the researchers weave a narrative of “cumulative disadvantage” over a lifetime for white people ages 45 through 54, particularly those with low levels of education.
Along with worsening job prospects over the past several decades, this group has seen their chances of a stable marriage and family decline, along with their overall health. To manage their despair about the gap between their hopes and what’s come of their lives, they’ve often turned to drugs, alcohol, and suicide.
“Deaths of despair” — or suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses, particularly from opioid painkillers — are a growing problem for midlife white people.
As you can see on the left-hand map, the epidemic started in the Southwest. Now it’s “country-wide,” the study authors write, and the increase can be “seen at every level of residential urbanization in the US.” So it’s not just a rural problem or an urban problem — it’s both.
The crisis is particularly acute among middle-aged whites. “The deaths of despair come from a long-standing process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree,” Case and Deaton write. “The story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, child rearing, and religion.”
Speaking of religion, looks like a number of people are losing it, and the results may not be so pretty. From The Atlantic:
When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Drumpf win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Drumpf’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Drumpf does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Drumpf trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.
Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Drumpf’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”
The worse Americans fare in their own lives, the darker their view of the country. According to PRRI, white Republicans who seldom or never attend religious services are 19 points less likely than white Republicans who attend at least once a week to say that the American dream “still holds true.”
But then, it’s not as if religion in and of itself is a panacea. Another article I happened across today from Buzzfeed centered on the abuses of some practitioners of Christian splinter groups amongst Korean and Korean Americans:
On Thursday, July 4, 1996, an LAPD patrol officer on the graveyard shift responded to a call from a Century City condominium; 46-year-old Choi Jin Hyun greeted him at the front door, speaking in — as the patrolman put it — excited, incomprehensible “Oriental.” A Korean-American officer arrived shortly afterward to translate. A prayer session had gone awry. In addition to Choi, two other middle-aged Korean men — both Christian missionaries — waited in the living room, while paramedics attempted to revive an unconscious woman in the bedroom. She exhibited signs of assault: a sunken chest, and purple contusions smattered from knee to hip.
The woman, Chung Kyung Jae, a 53-year-old mother of two teenagers, was pronounced dead a few hours later. The official cause: multiple blunt force trauma. Specifically, her heart had been crushed against her backbone; along with 16 fractured ribs, she’d suffered deep bruising on her pancreas and the muscles of her abdominal wall.
Later that same afternoon, 30 miles northeast of Los Angeles in our periwinkle-painted home, my mother was assembling her American-flag pound cake. She stood at the kitchen counter, dotting one corner of the Cool Whip–covered cake with blueberries, striping the rest with ripe, red fruit. I sat nearby, parked in front of the TV, as BREAKING NEWS suddenly preempted my cartoons. A photo of a familiar-looking man flashed onto the screen. He resembled my father, who’d left earlier that morning for the driving range, his bank holiday ritual. I peered closer, and realized I’d seen this lean and sallow-cheeked man last Thanksgiving: It was my uncle. An odd pair of words — “Local Exorcism” — trimmed the bottom of his mugshot.
In March 1995, a Korean Christian fundamentalist sect called the Jesus-Amen Ministries, based in Emeryville, California, prayed over and killed a woman with schizophrenia, striking her nearly 100 times on the face and chest. Their self-proclaimed leader purportedly told the police that the deadly ritual was “a victory for Jesus Christ.” In August 1996, a Korean surgeon in Chicago punched and choked his wife, with the aid of an evangelical minister, to make her a “better Christian.” The Chicago Tribune reported that this series of crimes offered a “troubling glimpse into a booming brand of Korean evangelism that straddles denominational lines,” especially attractive to deeply religious, homesick immigrants obsessed with demonology. The opportunistic few who lead the way provide hope to those, like the Chungs, “hungry for miracles.”
During the 1990s swell of Korean healing rituals, a Chicago Tribune writer concluded that the “quick-fix promises of anchal prayer” proved especially appealing to hardworking, first-generation Korean immigrants, like my uncle, “struggling for survival” in America. If I’ve found a common thread that connects South Korea’s proliferation of cults to my uncle’s story, it’s that people who are most vulnerable to spiritual manipulation are seeking a way to be seen, to reconcile with despair or displacement. Maybe too, that by performing miracles, or by accepting a doctrine that has “chosen you,” one can find themselves closer to God — transcending, if only for a little while, the otherwise unavoidable shortcomings of reality.
Divorced from hope, surrounded by despair, people of all backgrounds, are prone to sickness of the heart. And that sickness can rapidly descend into death.