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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, and 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.

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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

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