Rob Christensen

Christensen: Blue-collar blues shape politics

A new important scientific study was released last week, which provides us with a clue to the angry, anti-establishment politics the nation is now experiencing.

The study by two Princeton economists found a startling rise in the deaths of middle-aged whites. The increased deaths, the study found, was not caused by the usual health problems like heart disease or diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions resulting from substance abuse such as alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.

The increased death rate has occurred among whites aged 45 to 54 with no more than a high school education. From 1999 to 2014, the mortality rate increased by 134 deaths per 100,000. No modern society has seen such a deterioration, with the possible exception of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, according to the authors.

“The report is pretty stunning,” said John Quinterno, founder of South by North Strategies, a research consulting firm in Chapel Hill. “These are people who we see as the backbone of the middle class.”

This report comes on top of warnings of other scholars, including liberals like Robert Putnam and conservatives such as Charles Murray, who have been sounding the alarm that the white working class is in trouble.

“Unlike previous periods of American history when we’ve been through turbulent times, we’re really facing a grave crisis that people in America are not fully aware of,” Putnam said in a talk I heard not too long ago.

Murray said the four “institutions of meaning” – family, community, vocation, and faith – are falling through the floor for the white working class.

Much of what has gone wrong can be tied to economics and is quite evident in North Carolina.

The textile and furniture mills and other types of factories have shut down as the businesses has gone overseas in search of cheaper labor. There is more competition in the building trades from Latino workers. More jobs require high-tech skills.

In North Carolina the number of jobs grew from 3.3 million to 3.9 million from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Labor Department. But the jobs grew only barely – from 3.9 million to 4.0 million – between January 2000 and January 2010. North Carolina had 4.4 million jobs as of September.

But even the growth of jobs does not mean that people are better off. Salaries have lagged, and people who once held decent factory jobs may now be working in retail positions at much lower salaries. Many companies are now hiring people through temp agencies or as contract employees so they don’t have to pay benefits. Even the old way of trying to get ahead – working two jobs – is now difficult as some retail employers require their workers to change shifts.

Quinterno said North Carolina has been slow to recover from the recession, and that has added immeasurable stress to people’s lives. Some people have given up looking for work. Participation in the work force in North Carolina is at its lowest level in 40 years, he said. And without work, many people may not have health insurance and may turn to self-medication, Quinterno said.

After the recession, inflation-adjusted income for households headed by a person with only a high school education fell 19 percent.

Putnam and others have written about the impact of the spiraling downward decline when a plant closes: a loss of community, broken marriages, increased drug abuse, a decline in church attendance and so forth.

Here is a eye-opening statistic. In 2007, there were 157 meth labs broken up in North Carolina. In 2013, there were 561, according to the N.C. Justice Department. Many of them were located in small towns or rural areas.

The number of deaths from heroin overdoses has tripled in North Carolina from 2007 to 2013, according to state and federal statistics.

So how does this relate back to presidential politics?

Much of the rise of the outsider candidates, such as New York real estate magnate Donald Trump, has been fueled by white working people. When Trump talks about putting new restrictions on immigration or fighting for better trade deals, he is connecting with a lot of working class whites. Immigrants compete for jobs and many blame bad trade deals for the loss of American plants.

On the Democrat side, for working people who feel like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is too close to Wall Street and the establishment, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders strikes a chord.

Today’s anti-establishment politics is almost certainly tied to blue collar anxiety about how things are going.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack

  Comments