deaths of despairLast updated
The term deaths of despair was popularized by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (2020) about rising causes of death among middle-aged, non-college-educated white workers.
Specifically, Case and Deaton found that for white Americans ages 45-54, life expectancy has been decreasing in a pattern not seen in other countries. They found many people were dying prematurely, whether through deliberate self-harm including suicide or engaging in high-risk behaviors that could result in death, like alcohol or illicit opioid abuse. According to Case and Deaton, many of these deaths were in middle-aged white people without a four-year college degree living in rural areas. They pointed to the loss of employment and job security, a social safety net, and economic mobility as sources of the despair that contributed to these individuals’ deaths. (Case and Deaton eventually adopted “birth cohort” as their metric, saying, “People born in 1960 are at higher risk [for deaths of despair] than people born in 1950. People born in 1980 are much higher risk than people born in 1960, and so on. So it’s not just a baby boomer problem. Things look like they could get worse before they get better.”)
The concept has garnered criticism from some for overemphasizing the phenomenon among white Americans while ignoring that historically underserved populations also face economic barriers and lower health outcomes, and life expectancy has declined among all ethnic and racial groups, in both rural and urban environments.
Since the term has often focused on certain demographics and regions, defining “deaths of despair” can be helpful to separate the term from preconceptions.
- Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press)
- ‘Deaths of despair’ are rising. It’s time to define despair (ScienceNews)
- What Are So-Called Deaths of Despair? Experts Say They’re on the Rise (Newsweek)
- Anne Case and Angus Deaton on the epidemic of “deaths of despair” that predated coronavirus (Vox)
- ‘Deaths Of Despair’ Examines The Steady Erosion Of U.S. Working-Class Life (NPR)
- Why Americans Are Dying from Despair (New Yorker)
A term coined by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton to refer to deaths of working-age, non-college-educated, generally non-Hispanic white Americans related to suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, or alcoholic liver disease. The concept has garnered criticism for, some say, overemphasizing the phenomenon among white Americans while ignoring that historically underserved populations also face economic barriers and lower health outcomes. Giving a brief definition when using the term can be helpful if using, as is avoid stereotyping or focusing solely on one age range and racial group.