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Preventing Deaths of Despair Among White People: Hope From the Black Experience

Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA. He is a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.

White people in the United States are in trouble. Far too many of them are dying earlier than they should.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that middle-aged whites with less than a college education “have been getting sicker and dying in greater numbers even as the rest of the world is living longer and healthier.”

Half a million (white) people are dead who should not be dead.

— Nobel Prize winner Dr. Angus Deaton

The fatal deterioration in the wellbeing of this group seems to have begun in about 1999. Up until then, mortality rates among white men and women in the 45-54 age group were declining steadily, as were the rates of most other demographic groups. But from 1999 on, the death rate among middle-aged white Americans has shown a marked increase, even as the overall death rate in the U.S. continued its downward trend. The result, says Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, is that “half a million people are dead who should not be dead.”

“Deaths of Despair”

Why are white people dying more quickly than they should?

According to the research, most of the increase in mortality among working class whites is self-induced. For younger age groups, drug abuse (driven by the widespread availability of opioids since the 1990s) and suicide account for almost all of the additional deaths. Among older people, behavior-related problems such as heart and lung diseases, alcoholic liver disease, and cirrhosis, are also important factors.

Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case, both professors at Princeton University who together have done seminal research in this area, call these “deaths of despair.”

But what is causing so much despair that working class white people are killing themselves?

A research paper published in 2012 by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia (and others), addresses that question. The report, entitled No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class, highlights the interplay of factors that can cause people to become disconnected from the institutions that give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

“No Money”

Job prospects for less educated whites have been shrinking for decades. Blue collar jobs were 28 percent of the U.S. economy in 1970, but only 17 percent in 2010. Real hourly income (adjusted for inflation) for white men with a high school education or less actually dropped from $19.76 in 1979 to $17.50 in 2014.

Angus Deaton notes that white working class men are now “finding themselves in a much more hostile labor market with lower wages, lower quality and less permanent jobs. That's made it harder for them to get married. They don't get to know their own kids. There's a lot of social dysfunction building up over time. There's a sense that these people have lost this sense of status and belonging. And these are classic preconditions for suicide.”

Many researchers believe that the loss of the good-paying jobs that used to be readily available to whites without a college degree is a major source of the personal distress and social dysfunction that are causing some to essentially give up on life. Although working class whites are still better off financially compared to other groups in our society, their economic stagnation has caused a crisis in the way many of them see themselves and their future prospects.

White working class men are now finding themselves in a much more hostile labor market with lower wages, lower quality and less permanent jobs... There's a sense that these people have lost this sense of status and belonging. And these are classic preconditions for suicide.

— Nobel Prize winner Dr. Angus Deaton

“No Honey”

Unlike their college educated cousins, financially stressed lower class whites are abandoning the institution of marriage in increasing numbers. In today’s environment, as Deaton and Case note, marriage is “no longer the only socially acceptable way to form intimate partnerships, or to rear children.”

The effects of this change are especially pernicious. The research is clear that, as Case and Deaton put it, “unmarried, cohabiting partnerships are less stable than marriages.”

That fact in itself is a significant contributor to increased rates of suicide. According to Dr. Thomas Joiner, a professor at Florida State University, loneliness can generate a “desire to die.” Married people are much less likely to commit suicide than those who never marry or are divorced. Julie Phillips, a professor of sociology at Rutgers, reports that due to their increased social isolation, middle-aged unmarried men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than their married counterparts.

“No Church”

White people aren’t going to church the way they used to. Interestingly, it’s less educated whites who are leaving the church. The rate of church attendance among white people without a college education is falling more than twice as fast as the rate for those who have a college degree.

It’s not that these people have given up on the Christian faith; they have not become atheists or agnostics. Even though they don’t attend church, many still consider themselves Christians.

“Religious institutions appear to foster higher levels of physical and psychological health among their members."

In their “No Money, No Honey, No Church” paper, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and his research team note that “religious institutions appear to foster higher levels of physical and psychological health among their members, both by providing social support and by furnishing people with a sense of meaning.” In summarizing their findings, they caution that:

“The existence of a large group in the middle of the American stratification system that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society. This development is especially troubling because it only reinforces the social marginalization of working class whites who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work”

Why Aren’t Blacks Also Dying at Accelerated Rates?

The death rate among African Americans continues to fall

The death rate among African Americans continues to fall

African Americans have long had higher death rates than whites. But even though their death rates remain greater than those of whites (blacks die, on average, 3.4 years sooner than whites), their mortality is continuing its downward trend. Only whites are dying faster than they historically should.

Researchers initially found this fact puzzling because it’s well established that in terms of the economic measures that seem to be major factors in the increase of white hopelessness, blacks have always had it worse, and still do, though the gap is narrowing. Black unemployment, for example, remains twice as high as the rate for whites, and black men on average are paid only 73 percent of what white men receive.

Yet working class and poor African Americans are significantly more positive and hopeful than their white counterparts. According to Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “of all racial groups in poverty, blacks are the most optimistic about their futures.” Poor and middle-class whites are the least optimistic by far. They are also the most stressed. Poor blacks, on the other hand, are 52 percent less likely to be stressed than poor whites.

What accounts for this “optimism gap” between blacks and whites? Graham, along with other scholars, notes that research data shows that blacks have higher levels of resilience and a stronger sense of community.

Of all racial groups in poverty, blacks are the most optimistic about their futures… Scholars, such as Jeremy Jackson at the University of Michigan, highlight high levels of resilience and a strong sense of community among blacks.

— Carol Graham, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

The question becomes, then, from where do black Americans get the resilience and sense of community that have inoculated them against the woes that are causing similarly situated whites to kill themselves either intentionally or through self-destructive lifestyle practices?

An important element of the answer to that question is evident in the results of polling conducted by the Pew Research Center. While about 36 percent of all American adults say they attend church at least once a week, 53 percent of African American adults report doing so. And in contrast to the 56 percent of adults who say religion is very important in their lives, 79 percent of African Americans say so. Pew sums up their findings with this observation:

In many ways, African-Americans are significantly more religious than the general population, with the vast majority considering religion very important in their lives. African-Americans also are more religiously observant on a variety of other measures, from frequency of prayer and worship service attendance to belief in God.

But does the fact that African Americans are more religious and attend church more often than whites really help them live longer than they otherwise would?

The Black Church Has Been Crucial For African American Survival

Sociological research is practically unanimous in the conclusion that it has been the black church that has given the African American community the strength to survive the rigors of slavery, segregation, and continuing discrimination while maintaining a high degree of mental health.

African American churches provide their members with high levels of spiritual, psychological, and practical support. When stressful life events occur, black congregants can expect their “church family” to be there for them with helping hands, words of encouragement and guidance, and even financial support when necessary. Sociological research reveals that because of this extended support community, African Americans who attend church regularly display greater self-confidence, and are less likely to feel overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.

African Americans depend on God more than any other group

African Americans depend on God more than any other group

The spiritual support of the church is of primary importance. To a significantly greater degree than whites, African Americans rely on God to cope with stressful times in their lives. In fact, a number of researchers have commented on the fact that blacks are much less likely than other groups to seek professional psychological counseling. Instead, they display a decided “preference for relying on their spiritual and religious communities (i.e., the Black Church) for support in dealing with mental health issues.”

"Many African Americans identify God as a core aspect of their coping, and rely on their religion and spirituality during difficult life transitions… researchers attribute some of these differences to African Americans’ preference for relying on their spiritual and religious communities (i.e., the Black Church) for support in dealing with mental health issues."

It has been the black church, and faith in the God that church proclaims, that has helped African Americans to successfully overcome life circumstances far worse than those most white Americans have ever had to cope with.

But what if it’s the unique experience of African Americans in this country that has allowed the black church to have such a powerful and positive impact on their ability to survive and thrive? Could church attendance have the same effect on white people? Actually, the research shows that church attendance in general has a powerful positive impact on those who attend, whatever their race.

VIDEO: Attending Worship Services Keeps You Alive Longer

Church Attendance Helps People Live Longer

There’s a large number of sociological studies that confirm the finding that attending church helps people, whatever their race, live longer. For example, a Harvard study followed 74,534 women, most of whom were Catholic or Protestant Christians, over a 20-year period to assess whether their attendance at religious services affected their mortality. The researchers found that those who attended services more than once a week were 33 percent less likely to die during the research period than those who never attended.

The co-author of the research report, Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard’s school of public health, says his team was particularly struck by the fact that while women who attended church services were just as likely to contract breast cancer as those who didn’t, they were far less likely to die from the disease. The researchers could not pinpoint the reasons why church attendance helped women survive a dread disease, but VanderWeele speculates that “maybe it is a sense of hope or of faith, even in the face of illness and disease. A capacity to try to find meaning in the disease experience. Or feeling supported by a community even while struggling with illness.”

Significantly, the research indicates that attendance or membership in other types of social groups, such as clubs or volunteer organizations, does not produce the positive effect of regular attendance at church.

In a New York Times article Dr. Tanya Marie Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, sums up the consensus of research studies concerning the effect of church attendance:

“One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance – at least, religiosity – boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life.”

White People Need To Go Back To Church!

The church can still be a lifeline to working class white people

The church can still be a lifeline to working class white people

It’s no coincidence that poor and working class black people, who often live in circumstances substantially worse than those of most working class whites, are nevertheless far more optimistic and hopeful, and less prone to self-destruction. As the research shows, the fact that most African Americans have remained faithful to their spiritual roots in the church contributes significantly to their higher levels of mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing relative to their white counterparts.

The lesson of the black experience for at-risk white people is that a living faith in Jesus Christ, and regular attendance in a church that celebrates and reinforces that faith, can literally be a life saver. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people can just show up on Sundays and live any old way the rest of the week. The benefits of church attendance flow to those who actually live out their faith every day, and who commit themselves to being an integral part of a vital church community.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Ronald E Franklin


Robert Zimmerman on April 02, 2018:

Interesting take, Ronald, like most social issues there are many aspects affecting this. Personally, having lived through a tough middle age with lots of career upheaval I can see how many do not make it without a solid support system.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 18, 2017:

Kari, it's my hope that the article will indeed be useful in outreach. I think it could be a great conversation starter with relatives and friends.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on October 08, 2017:

Ronald, I was unaware of this. It is so true that belonging to a church helps people. We are a social species, and when we do not belong it hurts us. This would be a great area for outreach programs. :)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Hi, Rodric. Your experience is a good example of how faith in Christ is a real source of strength in the midst of very difficult life circumstances. The great thing is that God is no respecter of persons, and that strength is available to all people through faith in Christ and with the support of His church.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Thank you, ThreeKeys. It was a totally unexpected honor.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Marlene, you're experiencing exactly what the article is about. God instituted the church as not only a refuge in a dangerous world, but the conduit of His love, protection, and provision.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Hi, James. I think Job is a great example. Although very much put upon by his circumstances, he didn't succumb to victimhood, but put his trust completely in God. That kind of faith can make all the difference in these very unsettling times.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Thanks, Dora. In these uncertain times, trusting in Christ changes everything, both now and for eternity.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 06, 2017:

Thanks, Jo. You have a lot of company trying to figure out what's happening in our country today!

Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 26, 2017:

The research project was very interesting. I'm still trying to understand what is happening in this country and this may help a little.

I'm a member of a supportive church family and know personally the benefits of that. Great article.

threekeys on September 26, 2017:

A warm congratulations! on Hubpages Lifetime award, Ronald. I look forward to reading more of your inspiring articles.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 25, 2017:

Congratulations on your "HubPages Lifetime Achievement" Award. Your articles are super-interesting! Please keep that up.

Great information. I believe with all my heart that " a living faith in Jesus Christ, and regular attendance in a church that celebrates and reinforces that faith, can literally be a life saver." Someone has said that blacks are usually more forgiving, and forgiveness frees up emotional and spiritual strength.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on September 22, 2017:

Woe, this hub is an eye opener! For one, it caused me to think of how little contact (even incidental contact) I have had with this group during my adult life. As for why we African Americans aren't suffering a similar fate, I look to scripture. Job, a man who had his share of bad experiences said "Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble." (Job 14:1 Holy Bible KJV) We know this and simply deal with it. We understand a few days full of trouble as simply a fact of life. And, we've been knowing this for the whole time we've been here. The rest of the world seems to acknowledge this as well.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on September 22, 2017:

I can see how the church is a great help for those coping with stressful situations. My life has been filled with trials, still, I even surprise myself at how I am able to cope without having a total mental breakdown. It is the church and my church family who have helped me in the good times and the bad times. Being in a good church (one that serves the Lord) I am able to feel the love and care of the people and of the Lord. Reading your article helps me realize that is what keeps me going.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on September 22, 2017:

not having your time with to go into detail during my first comment, I wanted to add that I have been through a faith it was two weeks before Christmas. It was also two days before I was to start my new job which I currently have. We lost many of our possessions and had no way to recover from the situation because we did not have any insurance in the place that we were renting. We dependent on our faith as Christians. Both my wife and I prayed with our children which there are six living. Some friends of ours saw that we were in distress and another area and an answer to our prayer they reached out to us and involved the whole Community a few new stations and a GoFundMe account by Christmas we had a place to live we have more than enough food to eat we had the opportunity to purchase new clothing and we had a new to us but used van to help with transportation. We knew that the Lord will help us take care of our irresponsible Behavior because of our faith. Not because we like to put ourselves in a responsible situations mind you but because we had faith that the Lord would help us though we were ignorant and we would take whatever help he gave. It is the faith that we have learned through experience. Now I don't know if it is because I am black that I have that faith because I have struggled through my life as well as many people that I know. But I know it is because of my experience with God that that Faith came easily to me because of the trials that I go through. I do believe that black people go through more trials because of our ancestry and the socio-political state in which we live where it is eurocentric. I know that we accept a lot of things because of our powerlessness situation but that can be true of many other minorities. I do believe that white people who are in this country and for most of the world the dominant race of influence. People don't believe in White Privilege or eurocentric living. All Society gives witness to the fact that we live in a eurocentric society all we have to do is notice the fashion the languages that are extolled the heritage's and cultures that are celebrated, the distinction of what is beautiful and what is not and a host of other identifying markers which suggests that this eurocentric culture preference exists. I think because white people collectively the world culturally and economically that there is unsaid pressure to succeed that is not given to other coaches specifically black American culture. In Black American culture, it seems as though we are expected to fail. Because there is no expectation to succeed when we don't succeed there is no concern for failure. Without that concern takes away the stress of having to strive because culturally the submittal message is failure will occur. When black people do not succeed, the stigma attached to failure is not AZ pronounced as it is when white people fell because those people are expected to succeed it is culturally taught it is the undertone of everything about American, no, Western culture. I apologize ahead of time for rambling because I am using voice recognition instead of typing with my fingers.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 21, 2017:

Thanks, Eric. I think that what the research shows is that the positive effects of attending church don't arise just from the community aspects, although those are quite important. But it's been clearly demonstrated that being part of other types of organizations that also provide a lot of mutual support doesn't have the same impact on wellbeing and longevity. Of course sociologists can't really deal with the spiritual dimension, so the community aspect is all they can quantify.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 21, 2017:

Very interesting. I think it is still taboo to speak of skeletal/muscular differences between blacks and whites. But I understand in general their are some. If that be the case it would stand to reason that there be some differences in the mental health field also.

For sure if we are to apply generations logic then this would bear this out also.

I get the concept of community of worshipers but I pause in a certainty that it is the social aspect of a church. Although no doubt that is very important. As I am skeptic of really spiritual church goers holding back from the community at large. So one could get that social aspect just by knowing them?

Wonderful wonderful article and treatment of this most fascinating area that is very important.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 21, 2017:

Rodric, I think you put your finger on what the article is trying to say: it's not that going to church directly solves a person's problems. Rather, being part of a vibrant faith community helps equip a person with the internal resources they need (as well as the loving support of others who care about them) to deal with all their issues successfully.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 21, 2017:

Thank you, ThreeKeys. I'm glad the article struck a chord with you. I think part of the reason faith and church are so important is that they provide people with the strength and confidence they need in order to deal with their "no money" or "no honey" issues.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 21, 2017:

Thanks, Steven. I'm glad the article was meaningful to you, especially as someone who has lived with the issues it talks about. Feeding seven people on one salary isn't easy!

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on September 21, 2017:

The one overarching thing about this article that I agree with is the fact that when people do not attend church their ability to cope with the stresses of Life diminishes. Not necessarily that church is what is the cure for a situation but it is the spiritual underpinnings of a person's psychological health. I cannot recall the reference from where I received it but during my psychology degree I learned that in order for a person to be emotionally and psychologically whole they need to have some type of religious or spiritual underpinning. I agree with that and supported wholeheartedly.

threekeys on September 21, 2017:

I am glad you spoke about this. All three are important-no money, no church and no honey in order to want to keep going with life. If you cant pay your mortgage or rent, you land up homeless. So here, no money has the edge over going to church and having the nurturing experience of belonging. Having a belief that one is being looked after, together with others caring about you, can breathe back life and hope into oneself when everything is going against you.

While I am not an American, I could still "get it" (and wasn't surprised) about Pews Reseach findings. I think also why African Americans are more resilient in dire situations than working class white males, is because African Americans have endured hardships for many many generations and this resilience has been passed on generationally. This factor together with the African Americans' attraction to church and having a strong faith in God (the big protector and guide), has I believe, been the key to surviving the worst of the worst. Thankyou again Ronald.

Steven Long from Elizabeth City, NC on September 21, 2017:

A very good article. Thanks so much for this. I'm a 46 year old white working class man with a wife & 5 kids, so I can identify with so much in this article.

I had to vote for the 'no money' option. As a single-income family I know first hand the financial struggles of the working class; even to the point of trying to find a better paying job and always hitting a closed door.

Again, I really enjoyed this article :)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 20, 2017:

Thanks so much, Jennifer. You're right that blacks are more highly committed to their faith. That's likely the reason that they have been less affected by the secularizing tendencies in our society than other groups. You make a very interesting observation about 1999 being about a generation after the sexual revolution of the 1960s. I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense.

Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on September 20, 2017:

There is just so much to love about this article. It almost brings tears to my eyes.

First of all, thank you for caring about working-class whites and writing about them in a way that's not all about racism. I can't say how much that touches me.

Second, this research confirms my observations that on average, blacks are more likely to be committed religious believers. I'm a pastor's daughter, and I'll never forget the black kid on the school bus who dazzled me by rattling off the books of the Bible, in order, in about 20 seconds. That's just one of many examples.

We hear so often about how "the church" has been complicit in racism ... but we don't as often hear how GOD was building HIS church in the black community, and giving them strength to resist in godly ways, from Harriet Tubman to MLK.

Sorry, I'm getting carried away here. It's just a great article. All glory to God.

I voted for "No Honey" ... not because I don't think religion is important too, but because I believe the potential bad effects of not having married parents are legion. I wonder if we are just now seeing a decline in working class white life expectancies, because 1999 was about 30 years, or 1 generation, after the sexual revolution.

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