A comment on my previous post said, “Sorry, but not only can I argue against this alleged decline [of the well-being of Americans], I can convincingly argue that Americans have never had it better. Not even close.” That perhaps is correct for the Americans in the top 10 percent of the income distribution (although, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson argue in The Spirit Level, if we had more equality in the US, even the wealthier would benefit). But it is not correct for the median Americans, those right in the middle of the income distribution. And it is certainly wrong for those below the median, the poor and the less-educated. Two other comments immediately pointed this out. In fact, if you read the press, I don’t see how you can miss the stories showing that the life has been getting worse for “the other half.” Just yesterday there was an article in New York Times about increasing suicide rates, on which more below.
The trends in the American well-being over the last 40 years have been complex. Different segments of the population did differently, and different aspects of quality of life changed in opposite directions. It’s not so difficult to make sense of these changes.
Technology evolves, and mostly this tends to increase quality of life. There was nothing in the 1970s like the new digital technologies that we enjoy today. Such technical change has benefited both the poor and the rich. Over the last several hundred years, as technological change accelerated, generally speaking human well-being increased.
However, on top of this long-term trend we see secular cycles—sometimes quality of life increases dramatically over several decades, and at other times we see it stagnating, or even declining.
Over the last four decades the life of even the poorest Americans has improved in many ways. Everybody now has a cell phone, while if you go back far enough in time, even the billionaires couldn’t afford to have one, because they did not exist. Another example is medical advances. Even though the benefits of modern medicine are distributed highly unequally, some of it trickles down to the poor.
But in other ways the life of many Americans, and not only in the lowest segment of income distribution, got measurably worse.
This is illustrated in the following map:
The deep red color indicates counties in which life expectancy for women declined between 1987 and 2007. Declined! Despite enormous medical progress over the last several decades. Note the big red swath running from the Texas Panhandle into West Virginia. Most of Oklahoma is red, and so is half of Kentucky.
And just today there was an article in New York Times about the surging suicide rates. Here’s the graph:
For all age classes, except the oldest, suicide rates grew. The suicide rate for middle-aged women (between 45 and 64 years old) jumped by 63 percent. White middle-aged women had an increase of 80 percent. “It’s really stunning to see such a large increase in suicide rates affecting virtually every age group,” said one researcher interviewed by the New York Times.
Then the NYT article says, “The question of what has driven the increases is unresolved, leaving experts to muse on the reasons.” What’s there to muse about? Numerous indicators of American quality of life have been declining. This is what the technical term in the structural-demographic theory, “popular immiseration,” means. And theory also tells us why this is happening.