In truth, we couldn’t care less: On the surprising link between suicide and poverty

“Something startling,” writes Gina Kolata for the New York Times, “is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries,” she continues, “death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.” She’s referring to a study “by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and Anne Case,” who suggest, admitting they lack sufficient evidence, that the cause may be related to the economic fortunes of whites with no more than a high school education, a group in which deaths due to suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning are concentrated, and whose inflation-adjusted incomes have dropped by nineteen percent (apparently, but this is unclear, since the 1990s).[1] A corresponding article in the Wall Street Journal tries to blame drug addiction instead by first emphasizing the uncertainty of the relationship between economic distress and the rising death rate. It then concludes, “prescription drug addictions may be causing economic challenges by depressing labor-force participation, rather than economic forces like deindustrialization causing prescription-drug addictions. But either way, an urgent health and economic crisis is at hand.”[2]

Having spent many years among the working class, having spent many years struggling and, more recently, unable to find any work at all, let alone work befitting the Ph.D. I am about to earn, I am not at all surprised that economic despair can lead to suicide or drug and alcohol abuse. I know the despair from personal experience and I have witnessed the drug and alcohol abuse even among people I found to have enormous musical talent but who are—or were—poor nonetheless. And both these articles neglect the experience of austerity in Europe, where in Greece, “the suicide rate jumped about 40% in the first five months of 2011 compared with a year earlier,”[3] “Before the 2007 global financial meltdown, suicides in European Union countries had fallen sharply among people under age 65,” wrote Lynn Stuart Parramore in 2012. “Now, thanks to misguided economic programs and the sheer greed of financiers, that trend has abruptly reversed.”[4]

Increasingly in the West and increasingly throughout the world, we place a very high faith in quantitative data.[5] The wait for such data enables us to defer any compassion for the poor. But even among traditionalist conservatives, who are suspicious of positivism and quantitative data, there is a tendency to accept social inequality as the will of the god of Abraham, and to suggest that the poor should not only be content with their lot but proud of their ‘hardiness.’ The problem of social inequality, according to these traditionalists is not poverty, but rather those who stir up envy.[6] Capitalists rely on the availability of a large pool of indigent unemployed to induce the presently employed to accept poorer working conditions and lower wages.[7] And powerful interests generally are served by a stigmatization and criminalization of poverty, in which the destitute are held up first, as an example of what happens to those who do not conform; and second, as an object to be much more feared than the rich.[8] Accordingly, the United States is among a very few countries in the world that have refused to ratify that portion of international human rights law that, among other things, guarantees conditions of dignity for workers and that human beings should have a choice of work.[9]

We very often like to claim we do not value people for being rich. But in fact, mass media have been used since the early 20th century to inculcate a sense of self-worth and of the worth of others based on our ability to consume, even when it means accumulating debt to do so.[10] And with the notion from the Protestant Reformation that we have individual relationships with the god of Abraham came a notion that those who are among the “select,” that is, those relatively few bound for heaven, will be rewarded here on earth.[11] Thus, to be rich is to be good. And the corollary, reinforced if not originating in metaphor,[12] is that to be poor is to be evil and—oh, this is a surprise—to be feared.

Such binary thinking serves many purposes. The good/evil dichotomy enables us to think the U.S. is good and its opponents evil when a more nuanced view might challenge the moral certainty with which we so often go to war. It rationalizes colonial and even genocidal attitudes with “cowboys and Indians.” It reduces what sociologists call “deviance,” that is, non-conformance with “law and order,” to “cops and robbers.” And, as Herbert Gans points out, it diverts attention from the social divide between the rich and everyone else, focusing instead on a division between “everyone else” and the poor.[13] The point of having an “other,” whether that “other” is constructed by race, gender, socioeconomic status, or any of a number of ways we manage to divide ourselves, is not to empathize with that “other,” but rather to stigmatize the “other” as hostile or as deficient or as morally inferior or as some combination of these.[14]

The decline in 'routine work.' Image from the Wall Street Journal, attributed to Henry Siu and Nir Jaimovich. Fair use.
Fig. 1. The decline in ‘routine work.’ Image from the Wall Street Journal, attributed to Henry Siu and Nir Jaimovich. Fair use.

So it should not, even for a second, be surprising that when the availability of work that people with low educational achievement qualify for decreases (figure 1[15]), they find themselves in greater distress, that they may “self-medicate” with alcohol or other drugs, and that they may commit suicide. That we are surprised or startled only shows what a cruel and uncaring society we are.

Note, November 4, 2015: This post has been corrected for grammar since it was originally published.

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