Abstract

Building on our earlier research (Case and Deaton 2015), we find that mortality and morbidity among white non-Hispanic Americans in midlife since the turn of the century continued to climb through 2015. Additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality—particularly among those with a high school degree or less—are responsible for an overall increase in all-cause mortality among whites. We find marked differences in mortality by race and education, with mortality among white non-Hispanics (males and females) rising for those without a college degree, and falling for those with a college degree. In contrast, mortality rates among blacks and Hispanics have continued to fall, irrespective of educational attainment. Mortality rates in comparably rich countries have continued their premillennial fall at the rates that used to characterize the United States. Contemporaneous levels of resources—particularly slowly growing, stagnant, and even declining incomes—cannot provide a comprehensive explanation for poor mortality outcomes. We propose a preliminary but plausible story in which cumulative disadvantage from one birth cohort to the next—in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health—is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education. This account, which fits much of the data, has the profoundly negative implication that policies—even ones that successfully improve earnings and jobs, or redistribute income—will take many years to reverse the increase in mortality and morbidity, and that those in midlife now are likely to do worse in old age than the current elderly. This is in contrast to accounts in which resources affect health contemporaneously, so that those in midlife now can expect to do better in old age as they receive Social Security and Medicare. None of this, however, implies that there are no policy levers to be pulled. For instance, reducing the overprescription of opioids should be an obvious target for policymakers.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-4465
Print ISSN
0007-2303
Pages
pp. 397-476
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-07
Open Access
No
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