Monday, November 9, 2015

Middle aged white Americans: mortality rates versus median income

A new paper from researchers Anne Case and and Angus Deaton is receiving a lot of attention. In it, these researchers demonstrate that the mortality rates for white, non-hispanic middle-aged Americans—ages 45-54 to be precise—increased from 1999 to 2013. From the paper's abstract:
This paper documents a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013. This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround. The midlife mortality reversal was confined to white non-Hispanics; black non-Hispanics and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall. This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. Although all education groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, those with less education saw the most marked increases.
As causes for this unexpected trend, the researchers focus largely on suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and health-related issues, causes that can be interdependent to be sure, but can also be the result of outside factors. And given the fact that the trend was most significant among people with less education, an economic component seems to be almost a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the authors argue as much. From their Discussion section:
Although the epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible. After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education.
It's a tenable hypothesis, in my opinion. There is a trend of growing income inequality, no doubt. And the group most impacted by this across across a number of decades now is identical with the group identified here: white, middle-aged, working class people. This the same group who have been most impacted by the steady decrease in size of the U.S. manufacturing base, as well. So perhaps there is an obvious answer here: people who are losing hope that they once had are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, to not take care of themselves, to even commit suicide.

That said, there is a problem with the study, identified by Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science, and the director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. In short, Gelman identified a statistical bias in the study related to the age composition of the groups, because of a changing overall average age of the population. Gelman took this into account and arrived at a slightly different conclusion:
After controlling for age, there was a decline in the death rate from 1989 to 1999, then an increase from 1999 to 2005, then it’s been steady since then...  
In my post, I estimated no change because I was considering the entire range, 1989-2013, as presented in the original Case and Deaton paper. In his reply Deaton estimated an increase because he was just looking from 1999-2013. Actually, though, all that increase occurred between 1999 and 2005.  
So there appears to have been no aggregate increase in age-adjusted mortality in this group in the 1989-2013 period.
But Gelman is quick to point out that his findings do not invalidate the study or its conclusions in the least. As he notes, no increase in the mortality rate for this age/race group still stands in marked contrast to the decreasing mortality rates of other age/race groups, and to the decreasing mortality rates for the same age/race group in other countries.

Nonetheless, the comparison of the data sets from the original study and from Gelman's adjustments is worth looking at:

Now, I know correlation does not equal causation, but this graph, well it made me think of something; namely, the flattening out and decreasing median salary rate for middle-aged people, people who should be in their prime earning years and should be seeing increasing wages, but have instead seen the opposite across the last decade or so. Here's another graph:

Now, this graph includes all workers, not just one racial grouping. Still, the dark blue line looks eerily familiar, doesn't it? It's peak point is, in fact, 1999. Look at it from there until almost the end (2013). It's close to an inverse of Gelman's age-adjusted mortality graph. If both were smoothed out, my naked eye tells me they would very close to identical.

And what this indicates to me, what it screams out to me in fact, is that the last fifteen years have been an unmitigated disaster, from an economic standpoint. A economic downturn has been taking place across the past decade and a a half. On paper, a recession was staved off for years under Bush, but only postponed and never prevented. And then it finally hit, only to be followed by an imaginary recovery, as an actual one is yet to occur.

Every race and income group has felt this of course, but as the last graph indicates, no age group has felt it as much as the 45-54 one. And given that this group has been made up predominantly of non-hispanic whites for the past several decades (across almost all of U.S. history, actually), is it at all surprising that it would be the group to "crack," so to speak?


  1. Looks like the terrorists won afterall. The increasing focus on the security state and the "safety" of an ever-heavier regulatory burden has become such an overhead burden the economy is collapsing. There's no real capital left to grow with, just the illusion of more and more dollars spread over ever-decreasing wealth.

  2. To be fair, if that's really the case the terrorists didn't win because they had zero to do with it. We did it to ourselves, right?

  3. The terrorists were just a handy excuse, true, but we did nothing to ourselves. The political class bears full responsibility for destroying the productive class in the name of national security, safety and egalitarianism. Free society from the nanny state and watch those numbers reverse themselves again.