Last week, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics released a shocking fact: life expectancy dropped in the United States for the third straight year, down to 78.6 years as of 2017. What, exactly, drove that decline? Drug overdoses and suicides. Drug overdoses were responsible for more than 70,000 deaths in 2017, with the overdose rate climbing 9.6 percent over 2016; suicide jumped 3.7 percent.
CDC director Robert Redfield explained, “Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”
The continuing decline in American life expectancy should give the lie to the bizarre notion that drug overdose and suicide are results of a stagnant economy—a common theory on both the Right and the Left. That theory suggests that the globalized economy has left behind a particular segment of Americans, and that those Americans are dealing with economic hardship through drugs and depression. But that wouldn’t explain why life expectancy is declining now, when it continued to increase throughout the 2007-2009 economic recession. As David Brooks of The New York Times points out, “[economic] gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled…Thanks mostly to government transfer programs, incomes for the bottom fifth of society have increased by about 80 percent over the past four decades.”
It also wouldn’t explain the demographics of drug overdoses. As the CDC points out, “Some of the greatest increases [among heroin users] have occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use: women, the privately insured, the people with higher incomes.” And those taking their own lives are disproportionately not middle aged people falling out of the workforce—they are older American males, predominantly white. These are not the demographics of the economically dispossessed in the United States.
No, something else is missing. That something else is also manifesting in social fragmentation, tribal polarization, and political rage.