Who Thrives and Who Doesn’t?

Brookings has a sobering article about death rates among white working class Americans, who are now dying in middle age at faster rates than minorities. The causes are what the researchers call “deaths by despair”, due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Surely this is a worrisome sign for our American democracy. Republicans tend to blame the problem on external factors, like immigration. Democrats tend to tie the causes more closely to income inequality and shifting cultural mores.


Income inequality is a deliberate function of U.S. tax policy, which under both political parties has long favored the better off getting more. Investment income, for example, is taxed at lower capital gains rates, while wage income is taxed at the full rate applicable to that taxpayer.

When I was growing up in Kearny, one of our houses was on Stewart Avenue. Next door lived the president of the local savings and loan. We didn’t have any families of color on our street; as my high school friend Dawn reminds me, black families were confined to a few streets in a different section of town. But we did have socioeconomic diversity. The kids who had fathers who were doctors — it was usually fathers in the 1950’s — tended to live in stucco Tudor houses with big yards in the Manor rather than in wood frame houses like ours in more modest neighborhoods. But the Manor was walking distance from Stewart Avenue and we could and did walk to play with friends there or to sled down the steep streets that ended at River Road.

Think how much less true that is now. People who live on cheap streets, or who live in mobile home parks or homeless tent encampments simply don’t walk to the tony suburbs where richer people live. We don’t shop in the same stores, or go to the same places of worship, or frequent the same restaurants. We live in different worlds, and it’s clear from the Brookings research that one of those worlds is suffering mightily.

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