Popular Immiseration in America, c.1980–c.2020(?)



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.

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al loomis

i wonder how many new desperadoes there are, people who were getting by in the middle class and suddenly are ruined.
suicide is less attractive to people with hungry children, who are conscious of having played by the rules. do they put on masks, and hit the 7/11? solicit sex for money? create a bandit gang?


Immiseration does not necessarily mean that children go hungry. In America it is the obesity epidemic after all. Still they see no point in changing their diet, use drugs, alcohol, risky behavior and die at the relatively young age. As someone said, broken people stop bothering to live.
It was the very same story in 1990-s Russia for the very same reasons.


Dr. Turchin,

I would be careful passing on such data as shown in this graph. It seems formatted to exaggerate and distort.

Note every color is an improvement except solid red. Red, is a combination of no change and deterioration. When looking at data at a county level, there is going to be some which stay the same or decline just due to statistical fluctuation. However, do note that the population characteristics also change over time, especially at a small county level. In other words, migration of lower life expectancy people (illegal aliens) or oit migration of healthier people (to other counties) will substantially affect the numbers.

Going to the web site that produced this, I noticed they also have studies where they compare county trends to country trends in other countries, again formatting the data in a way which exaggerates and hypes their agenda.

Edward Turner

Surely that there is no improvement at all over such vast number of regions (a lot of the map has solid red blocks) is itself staggering when you consider the advances in medical science, health and safety laws and life-extension technologies over the last 30 years. Despite all of that which should have been a great boon there has been no change.

What exactly has been dragging these areas down to zero or negligible levels of improvement? Just imagine if we worked out what it was if it was something as simple as money we might be improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people overnight.


I explained it in my above comment, Edward. When you break down statistics into smaller pools, changes in the population due to statistical fluctuation, in migration of lower lifespan immigrants, out migration of healthier people will all lead to areas of no improvement even as the overall country improves.

This debate started when Turchin wrote that the median welfare in the US deteriorated for forty years and did so inarguably. I provided overwhelming arguments which reveal that welfare is in most ways significantly better. This led to various comments which tried to quickly change the subject (to the last ten years, to sub classes which saw deterioration, or to an elevation of equality to trump-all-other-factors status). Now we are debating how a small minority of small Appalachian counties didn’t see improvement. Again, go to the linked lifespan web site. It appears to me to be a concerted effort to create negative spin on overall positive numbers.

Edward Turner


//in migration of lower lifespan immigrants//

which ones are these?

why are they leaving the rich coastal regions of the US?

why do they have lower lifespans?

I’m not convinced the patterns on the map can entirely be explained by migration, but even if it was entirely due to migration you still have to explain that.

An out-flow of poor/low lifespan (on your hypothesis) from the wealthy liberal cities would presumably be a sign of rising property prices, due to the growing incoming inequality. This map then becomes a proxy for inequality that way.

Don’t yet understand your explanation that it is not evidence for growing inequality in US.


Why people are immigrating in or emigrating out is irrelevant. If they are, then it can affect averages. If a tall person leaves a classroom, the average height of the class drops without anyone getting shorter.

Why are you asking about the richer coastal regions? These are all growing in lifespan. Some considerably.

Please note, this in actuality is a chart of increasing lifespans, with the no change and decrease group somewhat deceptively combined into one red color for visual impact. every color except solid red is an improvement. We can’t see deterioration because the scaling intentionally obscures it.

I am not arguing that there has been no increase in inequality nor that no segments of society have seen things get worse in some dimensions. I would be amazed if everything got better for everyone. My argument is that well being for the median is up substantially. I will elaborate on this in a separate comment.


I would not be amazed.

With pretty consistent productivity and GDP growth in the past few centuries, betterment of everything is the norm (and that is true in pretty much every single other first world country besides the US). But in our modern world (with advancements in healthcare all the time), a leveling or decrease in lifespan in any major group of people in the first world is shocking.



Yes! Exactly. What we have seen over the past 30-40 years is a slowing of the rate of growth or improvement in developed nations. With this I agree completely, and I think we can agree on at least some of the causes. One important one is the faster rate of improvement in well being of people in Asia. The two are connected as explained by Stolper/Samuelson decades ago.


Also an increase in inequality in the US.

Edward Turner


//Why are you asking about the richer coastal regions? These are all growing in lifespan. Some considerably.//

You suggested that “in migration of lower lifespan immigrants” was in some (or whole) part responsible for the lack of progress /w respect to longevity in inland America over the last 30 years.

So why these people left the rich coastal regions to go inland and thereby impact the longevity statistics? I would suggest this population transfer occurred due to rising property prices in the major coastal cities. The poorer/less long-lived people were forced out. Rising property prices are due to rising income inequality. But that’s my spin on (what I think is) your theory.

// My argument is that well being for the median is up substantially. //

How many of them are there?



I do not deny that high property prices are driving people out of some areas. In addition, poor opportunities drive people out. And better opportunities drive tens of millions of Central Americans northward entering the population and affecting it in various ways.

How many saw improvement when the median improved? Well, most. Not all.


Even though there is on average an increase in life expectancy accross the country, surely the difference in rates of that increase are reason enough to be worried?

Ross Hartshorn

I think the idea of comparing these trends to Russia in the 1990’s would be a good idea. They tell us a lot just on their own, but it would be good to see a comparison to other nations where income inequality was increasing (as I am led to believe was the case in immediate post-Soviet Russia).


The region of the map corresponds quite well to Greater Appalachia. Specifically, it corresponds to areas that are heavily Scots-Irish in ancestry. The Scots-Irish suffer more from all manner of social ills, from alcoholism, smoking, prescription drug abuse – to even traffic fatalities.

See my post on it:

HBD is Life and Death – The Unz Review

Indeed, see the whole series:

American Nations Series – The Unz Review


As wealthier and better-educated people tend to live longer, would the changes in life expectancy be at least partially a result of such people leaving economically depressed regions, leaving behind those more likely to suffer early death due to poor dietary behaviour, etc?

Edward Turner


There must be a strong rural – urban effect that works in many different ways. Out migration causes brain drain, capital flight and worker shortages in rural cities, towns and communities. Would this effect have got stronger over the last 30 years?

The rural/poor urban/rich differential is evident on maps of life expectancy everywhere*, and at all scales (it’s fractal). What is relevant to equality is whether the gap between the rural/poor urban/rich regions widens or narrows. The key fact is that in some areas of the US the gap widened over the last 30 years.



Chinacomment image



Since this article is a rebuttal to my comments, please allow me to respond in full.

You stated:

“…what’s important is not the absolute level of well-being, but how it changes from one generation to the next. Let’s consider the most dangerous age-group of people (as a source of political violence): those in their twenties. They compare the standard of living they have achieved, or are likely to achieve, to that of their parents. If their quality of life is lower, the MMP increases, and vice versa. Well, over the last 30-40 years the well-being of the median Americans has been declining.”

I responded:
” Economically, incomes have not declined, they are actually up substantially (median income up 44-62% depending upon group). Lifespans are up across the board, medical care for serious diseases are simply incomprehensible better. Air quality and water quality are much better. Education levels are significantly higher. Inventories of material possessions (housing, appliances, AC, computers, cars, etc) are up, and the poor today are better than the middle class of forty years ago. Inflation rates are lower, unemployment rates similar or lower (to the stagflation rates of Carter era). Better entertainment options. Should I go on?”

I forgot to mention the dramatic drop in crime rates which also occurred during the time period.

Another commenter attempted to rebut my argument by stating that death rates increased for some segments of the population or in a few low populated counties over the past decade or so. And one other commenter said that the only important factor isn’t well being, but inequality of outcome, which trumps all other issues. In other words, the two responses found they could not refute my argument and instead decided to change the terms of the debate, one to isolated subclasses over different time periods, another by just dismissing anyone not convinced that extreme egalitarianism is the moral trump card.

Now you have now backed away from your “inarguable” position and reframed your argument to my comment that median welfare has improved as follows:

“That perhaps is correct for the Americans in the top 10 percent of the income distribution But it is not correct for the median Americans, those right in the middle of the income distribution.”

Nonsense. My comment was on the median or average over the past 30-40 years. It was not for the top ten percent. The average or median income, health, education, leisure, crime rate, air quality, water quality, and so on has improved, in some cases substantially. I only have data comparing suicide rates from 1960 to 2005, but the US has seen neither increases up to this point, nor is the absolute level particularly high compared to other developed nations (see Wikipedia). I am not contesting your small county data, just pointing out that it was formatted in a way which obscured the data. It was formatted as propaganda, not empirical analysis.

But then you further backtrack and write:

“And it is certainly wrong for those below the median, the poor and the less-educated.”

A word of warning here. It is essential that we not assume economic classes or quintiles are measuring permanent classes. They are not. In general, most people in the US move in and out of income quintiles. The usual pattern is to be in the lowest quintile when going to school or just out, to move up in quintiles until the mid fifties or early sixties (when productivity and experience are highest), then to move back down to the lower income quintiles when retiring. The important thing to consider is the lifetime earning trajectory of the median person.

And the most people today are doing better their parents. As the attached link shows, 84% of Americans make more than their parents.


The link also shows that incomes are higher for those in each quintile compared to the same quintiles a generation ago (and again, people routinely move between quintiles)

Let me end by stressing that I am not aware of any data which shows that well being — in terms of income, education, health, lifespan, indoor or outdoor pollution exposure, or crime — has deteriorated for the average or for the median. In general, even if we look just at the poor, most of these factors have improved for the period of time which they are poor (I would be careful though as things like education define who is poor more than years past). Once again stressing that classes are snap shots in time, not of entire lives.

Also, note how the living standards in the US stand up to other countries.


In all honesty, I fail to see where you have presented any data which shows that median welfare has declined. Indeed, I am not sure why you continue to repeat something which so clearly contradicts all the easily verifiable data.

Edward Turner


the link (http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2012/07/84-of-americans-.html) says

//The country looks far less mobile when you look at relative income classes, though. Americans born into the very top or bottom quintiles were likely to remain there as adults://

Perhaps the lower quintiles get their higher incomes – in comparison to their parents – from the high proportion of immigrant workers that make up the subset, and their offspring.

Huge increase in immigrants from 1980s:

If you maintain high levels of immigration from poor countries every decade the lower quintiles are going to exceed their parents’ wealth, because their parents began with nothing or very little. This data swamps the data from non-immigrant Americans which is less impressive.

The key indicators are the rural/poor vs urban/rich stats; whether these figures are widening or narrowing. You should not be punished for simply not living in a big city.


Roger, I looked at your link. Income may be up, but wealth for most people has not gone up:
http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2012/07/84-of-americans-.html :

“Unlike with income, there were not across-the-board gains for wealth. The median person in the poorest quintile has a family net worth that is 63% less than that of his counterpart a generation ago: $2,748, versus $7,439.”

Wealth has actually gone down across generations for 3 of the of 5 quintiles.

When you add in the fact that defined-benefit pensions have really eroded, financial insecurity looks like it has increased for most people.

Hard to argue that everything has become better for everyone given those facts.



I never said everything is better for everyone in every way. I specifically stated this was not the case several times. It is better for most people in lots of important ways, and I don’t get why Some continue to deny this.


Roger, you said:
“Let me end by stressing that I am not aware of any data which shows that well being — in terms of income, education, health, lifespan, indoor or outdoor pollution exposure, or crime — has deteriorated for the average or for the median.”

Well, now you are aware that wealth has actually gone down for the median person, and with defined benefit pensions going away, financial insecurity likely has increased for the median person as well.

Edward Turner

Looking at this chart –


high levels of immigration (which over the last 30 years has been mostly hispanic) correlates very well with the blue areas on the life expectancy map in the blog.

Top regions for immigration: California, New York, New Jersey, Florida are all blue on the life expectancy map.

This matters because, according to this data below, Latino Americans live many years longer, on average, than most other Americans except Asian Americans. This fact could accentuate other factors which influence the colours on the longevity map.



Hi Peter,
Don’t you love how strongly the NYT attempts to paint the economic narrative so positively using simple metrics that miss so much (focusing on the means rather than the variances).
“Eight years after the financial crisis, unemployment is at 5 percent, deficits are down and G.D.P. is growing. Why do so many voters feel left
behind? The president has a theory.”


“Why do so many voters feel left
behind?” And vote for Trump even in the NE? I wonder why…:)) They all live so much better and fail to notice it:)

John Lilburne

The spirit level is a very interesting book where the statistic are handled like Ancel Keys handled the cholesterol/ heart attach stats.

I agree that a more egalitarian society is more efficient and reduces inter class competition etc,

But the spirit levels stats are skewed by the inclusion of Sweden (and other scandanavian countries but to a lesser degree) which is a significant outlier to other European countries.
Culture and ethnicity play significant in the picture.

Sweden is being transformed into another country by its elites and I don’t know how happy Swedes are with the country now

Russ Abbott

You end your post with this.

“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.”

Would you mind pointing to a short version of the popular immiseration explanation of the decline in American quality of life.



Comparative wealth and status matters more to well-being (far more) than absolute wealth and status. If you double my income and triple everyone else’s, I’ll feel worse, not better.

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