Drug addiction rates are down. Smoking rates are down. Obesity rates have leveled off. So, what's killing poor Southern white women off five years earlier than they were dying two decades ago? According to this fascinating and terrifying article at theAmerican Prospect by Monica Potts, it's not clear:
The last time researchers found a change of this magnitude, Russian men had lost seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began drinking more and taking on other risky behaviors. Although women generally outlive men in the U.S., such a large decline in the average age of death, from almost 79 to a little more than 73, suggests that an increasing number of women are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” Olshansky says. “I wish we did.”
Most Americans, including high-school dropouts of other races, are gaining life expectancy, just at different speeds. Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare. “If you look at the history of longevity in the United States, there have been no dramatic negative or positive shocks,” Olshansky says. “With the exception of the 1918 influenza pandemic, everything has been relatively steady, slow changes. This is a five-year drop in an 18-year time period. That’s dramatic.”
The article looks at a host of factors, each more depressing than the last — what role education plays, what role not having a good support network has, what role not having regular access to medical care has, etc. etc. But the worst part is just a general sense that life is harder for poor white women than it was twenty years ago and they don't have as much to live for as their mothers' generation did.
Potts interviews the technology coordinator for the Cave City, Arkansas schools, Julie Johnson, who says, "If you are a woman, and you are a poorly educated woman, opportunities for you are next to nothing. You get married and you have kids. You can’t necessarily provide as well as you’d like to for those kids. Oftentimes, the way things are, you’re better off if you’re not working. You get more help. You get better care for your kids if you’re not working. It’s a horrible cycle. [...] There has to be something to inspire kids to want more, to want better. And they have to realize that they’re going to have to work hard to get it. I don’t know how you do that."
I don't know, either. But our failure to figure it out is proving deadly.