On Middle Aged White Americans

Last week the NY Times reported on a new economics study out of Princeton that points to the rising death rate amongst middle aged white Americans, who I think we should call MAWAs.

MAWAs are the only demographic group seeing a rise in death rates. Young white people, old white people, and every other American ethnic group has a declining death rate. The causes of the increased rate appear to be substance abuse and suicide.

The study's authors report that MAWAs are more likely than others to experience chronic physical pain and financial distress. They have a high rate of unemployment due to physical and mental health disabilities,The least educated in the group report the most physical pain. Summing it up, one expert said:

"This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”

But what is that something? 

It's easy to say things like, "this is why we HAVE TO FIX HEALTH CARE IN THIS COUNTRY!" in response to an article like this, but I think we also need to push past the knee-jerk political response and ask -- what (outside of the crazy insurance industry) -- is happening here. 

So, here are some open-ended thoughts that've been circling around my brain in response to this article. Things that will probably find their way into the pages I'm writing:

In the world I touch every day (one of artists and feminists and social media and contemporary thinkers), we talk about bringing about the End of Privilege a lot. We tend to (rightfully, I think), put our collected energy behind advocating for plurality and shaming institutions that knowingly and unknowingly promote outmoded notions. We tend to label these notions White and Male. The advocacy is working and change is coming (sometimes swiftly, sometimes painfully slowly). But as my teacher and friend Ken Prestininzi has said to me, there is a cost to everything. Is this self-harming demise of MAWAs the cost of progress? Is that acceptable?

This week I was also thinking about the presidential election and the repeated refrain in the Republican party that America is not Great, but could be Great again. I imagine being a Middle Aged White American in physical pain and financial distress. Those words must carry significant appeal, right? So, I (imagined MAWA) express myself at the ballot and vote for the candidate who promises to get America back on track. To get me and my people back on track. Only America is never going to get back to being the place it used to be when I (imagined MAWA) was able to get jobs and benefits and stability because of my place in society because of my skin color because of institutional bias, so the promise and hope of my vote turns sour as I watch the privilege that was seemingly inherent to my group erode. What a helpless feeling.

And then there's this:


My wife looks at trend reports in her work and recently sent me this research from Nielsen:

The size and influence of the US African-American segment is growing faster than that of non-Hispanic whites, according to a September 2015 Nielsen report. The black population is set to increase to 74 million by 2060, making up 18% of the total US population.
Rising Affluence: The growth rate of African-American income levels exceeds that of non-Hispanic whites at every level above $60,000. The percentage of black households earning more than $200,000 increased by 138% from 2005 to 2013, while the increase for the total population was 74%.
Influential Voice: African-Americans are a force for cultural influence across ethnic groups, forging trends in music, television and film. This is partly because of their youthful demographic profile: the average age of African-Americans is 31.4 years, compared to 39 years for the non-Hispanic white population.
Super-Social: This demographic is 44% more likely to use social networking platforms to show support for their favourite brands than non-Hispanic whites with similar income. Smartphone penetration is 5% higher among African-Americans than the rest of the population.
Learning Fast: African-American consumers are increasingly educated, with 71% of black high school graduates enrolled in college last year – more than both whites and Hispanics.

To which I say, about time.

But this Nielsen report clangs around my brain and meets up with the Times article about MAWAs and now there's a whole bunch of sound that starts to vibrate and resonate when I think about what it means to be sitting in the era of a challenge to Privilege.

I know it's politically treacherous to advocate for empathy because empathy is the luxury of the privileged. "Hey dude, you can afford to look at it from that side because you haven't been oppressed your whole life."  But something is awry in the households of Middle Aged White Americans and I wonder if it warrants our empathic attention even as we push to change things.