richard_nisbett's picture
Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Thinking: A Memoir
The Disillusionment Hypothesis And The Decline and Disaffection For Poor White Americans

"The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014."  —The New York Times

Over the past 15 years or so, the mortality rate for poorly educated middle-aged whites living in the South and West in the U.S. increased significantly. Mortality did not increase for middle-aged blacks, Hispanics or any other ethnic group, nor for whites in other regions of the country, nor for poorly educated whites in other rich countries. The death rates that are most elevated are those for suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, heroin overdose and other causes suggesting self-destructive behavior.

There is some controversy at this point about just how great the increase in mortality is, and whether the increase in mortality holds only for women or for both men and women, but there is no debate about the fact that late-middle-aged poor American whites are doing relatively badly with respect to mortality rates—both as compared with other Americans and as compared to people in rich countries generally. And the warning signs that something is very wrong with white people at the bottom of the American economic ladder are coming with ever-greater rapidity.

The worsening plight of poor white Americans highlighted by the Times article on the mortality findings by economists Angus Deaton and Ann Case is by no means limited to just the South and West. Researchers from political science to neuroscience have been uncovering ever more disturbing facts about whites at the bottom of the US socioeconomic ladder. Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, showed that between 1960 and 2010 the bottom 30 percent of Americans in terms of socioeconomic status have experienced a collapse in social capital. The rate of children who were from broken marriages and living with a single parent increased tenfold over that period—to 25 percent. The rate of children living with both biological parents when the mother was forty years old plummeted from 95 percent to 30 percent. The fraction of people having no involvement in any secular or religious organization more than doubled—to 34 percent. The percentage of prime working age males not in the work force increased threefold—to 12 percent. The percent of men not making enough money to support a household of two more than doubled—to 30 percent. The percent of males in state and federal prisons increased almost fivefold.

Murray examined the same variables for the 20 percent of the white population with the highest socioeconomic status. For none of these variables was there a notable worsening over the 50-year period.

Sociologist Sean Reardon examined the gap between the academic achievement of the top 10 percent of the SES spectrum and the bottom 10 percent between the late 1940s and the early 2010s. He also examined the black/white gap in academic achievement over that time span. At the beginning of the period, the black/white gap was double the SES gap. At the end of that period the SES gap was double the black gap. This crossover was due roughly in equal proportion to the gains of black children and the losses of lower SES children.

Murray’s claim that the welfare state is responsible for the lassitude and misery of the American lower class would appear to be ruled out by the fact that the social safety net is much stronger in Europe, and there is nothing there that is close to the dire straits of those at the bottom of American society. It’s easier to argue that it’s the lack of a European-style safety net that has contributed to the American debacle.

So what is responsible for the malaise at the bottom? Scientists have produced little but speculation to this point. But I think a case could be made that a contributing cause is that faith in the American dream, while still alive at the top of the economic pyramid, is disappearing at the bottom, and that this is true for primarily economic reasons. When I moved to Ann Arbor decades ago, a high-school educated worker on the line at Ford made enough money to support a family of four, own a three-bedroom home in the suburbs, possess two cars and a boat, and purchase a cottage in northern Michigan. That’s a higher standard of living for the poorly educated than was true in Europe then or now—or in the U. S. today. The poorly educated man today can expect to be an assistant manager of a chain store, a security guard, or a jack of all trades—occupations that barely support a single individual in modest fashion, let alone a family of four in comfort.

The disillusionment hypothesis has the virtue of explaining why it is that the support for Donald Trump is greatest today among ill-educated whites in the poorer, less cosmopolitan regions of the country. Trump’s bombast, braggadocio, xenophobia, aggressiveness, and willingness to tell baldface lies is unnerving to anyone having a nodding acquaintance with the circumstances of the rise of fascism. Both Italian fascism and German Nazism achieved their greatest initial successes with the proletariat. In the case of Nazism the greatest early gains were made with rural Protestant peasants.

Scientists have yet to develop convincing theories about what might alleviate the plight of poor whites at the bottom of the social ladder. Meanwhile we can only hope that the economic doldrums don’t worsen, producing receptivity ever higher up the economic ladder to demagogues.