Economic Transition and “Deaths of Despair”

As regular readers of this blog know, I can get going on a good rant over the near absence of any kind of economic transition support for displaced workers in the US.  Our social safety net is torn and frayed, and millions of people are falling through the net.  Some recent research shows that this is not just an issue of minor policy tinkering.  Our limited and underfunded transition efforts have real consequences for real people, according to new research from Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University.  Their study, Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century, has garnered a load of media attention for its focus on increasing midlife mortality among the US working class.  But, the study also shows another set of scary trends.  When faced with an economic shock, such as a plant closure or a larger event like the Great Recession, American workers are more likely to suffer from continued health problems and higher death rates than their counterparts in other countries.   When workers in Europe or Australia lose jobs, they also suffer.  But, they also seem to recover over time.  In the US, recovery is much slower and sporadic.  Lots of factors appear to be at work here, but it’s clear that a weak social safety net plays a central role.  When work disappears, American workers have fewer options for health care, social support, or retraining.    Without resources or support, the rise of “deaths of despair” should come as no surprise.  But, it should be a surprise—and a disgrace—that we aren’t doing anything about it.

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