Donald Trump Pushes Government to Fight ‘Death by Despair’ Opioid Disaster

Here is some promising news about the nation’s much-ignored drug disaster: On Tuesday, President Donald Trump confirmed that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will head up a national task force to combat the deadly opioid epidemic.

“This public health crisis was responsible for more than 50,000 deaths in 2015 alone, most of which involved an opioid, and has caused families and communities across America to endure significant pain, suffering, and financial harm,” declared Trump’s executive order on March 29, which directs the federal government to fix the problem — and gives the leading role to the New Jersey governor. “Gov. Christie will be instrumental in researching how best to combat this serious epidemic … This is an epidemic that knows no boundaries and shows no mercy,” said President Trump’s order.

Christie was noted for a deeply moving speech about the loss of an old friend to drug addiction during the Republican primary season.

The president previously met with victims of opioid addiction at the White House, declaring it a “crippling problem throughout the United States” and a “total epidemic.” Trump said the problem had not received enough attention to date. Christie attended the meeting, along with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

This is one of the most encouraging signs to date that the federal government — now under President Donald Trump — will firmly engage the opioid epidemic, and hopefully the culture of despair behind it.

Steve Sailer crunched some numbers and concluded the White Death is even worse than initially believed. If white male death rates in 2014 were equivalent to the mortality rate for Hispanic men, “over 40,000 fewer whites, age 25-54, would have died in 2014,” Sailer wrote. 

He notes that mortality rates are spiking to different levels for various age cohorts, and proposes widespread social acceptance of drugs in the early seventies played a major role in rising mortality rates for people who were adolescents at that time.

The researchers who initially sounded the alarm about surging white working-class mortality rates, husband-and-wife team Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University, have produced a new study that argues economic upheaval drove these elevated mortality rates. They make a dismaying case that the social problems in play are connected in such complex ways that even the best new government policies would need years to produce a significant improvement.

“Policies, even ones that successfully improve earnings and jobs, or redistribute income, will take many years to reverse the mortality and morbidity increase. Those in midlife now are likely to do much worse in old age than those currently older than 65,” Case and Deaton write.

Reporting on their latest findings, Bloomberg News notes that “income inequality itself doesn’t seem to be the driver of white woe.” Other demographic groups with worse economic prospects are seeing a decline in their mortality rates, while income inequality in Europe doesn’t seem to have produced anything comparable to the “White Death” in America.

Case and Deaton propose that a seismic shift in American middle-class prospects created the clime of despair that brought heroin back in a big way, along with other behavioral conditions that increased the mortality rate. As Bloomberg puts it:

While minorities have a long history of economic struggle, white Americans could once expect a secure job, family life and future with only a high-school degree. But unions, factories and mines began to decline in the 1970s, taking with them high-paying jobs.

In response, college attendance increased. Those who didn’t go found themselves in lower-paying jobs or left the labor market entirely, pushing down participation for those with less than a bachelor’s degree.

As opportunities eroded, so did institutions that composed the backbone of middle-class existence. Traditional churches ceded ground to creeds that emphasize individualism — as a result, people feel increased responsibility for their own successes or failures. Marriage became less common as men became less likely to work, leaving both genders with less stability.

“The story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, child rearing, and religion,” the authors wrote.

This is consistent with my thoughts on “death by despair” from over a year ago. Case and Deaton see the erosion of marriage and religion as depriving the affected populations of vital resources they need to counteract despair, explicitly describing abused substances as a substitute for what Bloomberg calls “traditional moorings.”

A point where I might argue with the Princeton researchers is their offer of “better safety nets for mothers with children” to “counter the negative effects of a poor labor market on marriage.” Not to say that such safety nets aren’t important for the affected mothers and children, but they simply are not a sufficient replacement for the loss of marriage. They might even lead to further deterioration, by making men more comfortable with abandoning their families. As we can see from those high mortality rates, men pay an ultimate price for such abandonment years down the road, but that is no comfort at all to anyone involved in the tragedy of broken homes.

The awful lesson of the White Death is that no welfare program can address the poverty of spirit and purpose that flows from the loss of work and opportunity. The fact that income inequality is not a measurable influence on mortality rates should tell us that giving the desperate more money does not cure despair. At best, it alleviates the consequences of a desperate situation.

It also seems facile to hope that a roaring economy and robust job growth will solve the problem. Such conditions would be helpful – possibly even the best near-term strategy we could pursue – but Case and Deaton’s warnings about the complexity of interconnected social factors mean it’s not a problem we can entirely or quickly solve by giving more people jobs. Among other problems, this type of social deterioration will probably make it difficult for those affected to secure and hold good jobs.

The Brookings Institution puts the scope of the crisis in stark terms, noting that “mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015.”

Brookings further points out that rising mortality rates among non-Hispanic whites aged 45 to 54 are now spread across the country, after initially centering in the southwest at the turn of the century.

Instead of improving across generations, the problem seems to get worse: “Marriage rates and labor force participation rates fall between successive birth cohorts, while reports of physical pain, and poor health and mental health rise.” 

The importance of good family life for children has never been more painfully obvious. Also, it’s clear that any resolution to this problem must be something that transmits across generations – financial and social resources, habits and attitudes, that pass from parents to their children. Is there a single more despairing thought than the commonly-voiced fear that children will fare worse than their parents did because the American Dream is dying?

We should take a long, hard look at the cultural and political signals sent to the affected populations as well. Bloomberg News quotes Pennsylvania State University Assistant Professor Shannon Monnat’s observation that Donald Trump did well in “counties with higher economic distress and larger working-class presence,” as well as higher mortality rates. Trump openly appealed to the “forgotten men and women of our country,” as he put it in his inaugural address. Their sense of abandonment and alienation was not a figment of their imaginations.

Our political and media elites expected those people to ignore Trump’s appeals because he is ostentatiously rich… which is another way of saying they thought the Forgotten Man and Woman were insincere in their feelings. They were supposed to be more concerned with Trump’s style than the substance of what he said, more contemptuous of his wealth than worried about their own prospects. Certain quarters of the Left simply cannot believe that white people can be victims, or deserve sympathy for their predicament; others are comfortable with writing these people off as acceptable losses for their central planning schemes that serve the interests of the wealthy in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles.

But elections have consequences, and now the central government in Washington is paying attention to the drained and wounded communities far from the elite’s favorite cities.


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