May 24, 2019

The Progress Paradox

“The global economy is full of progress paradoxes. Progress in technological innovation, reducing poverty, and increasing life expectancy around the world continues to increase. Yet there is also persistent poverty in poor and fragile states and increasing inequality and anomie in some of the wealthiest ones. This latter trend is showing up in a resurgence of nativism and anti-establishment voting across many countries. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S. in 2016 soon after British voters’ decision to leave the European Union were stark markers. Subsequent elections of right-wing populists in several other European countries confirmed a rising backlash against globalization in wealthy countries.

These trends have even starker markers. Despite having one of the wealthiest economies in the world, life expectancy in the U.S. is falling due to deaths driven by suicides and drug and alcohol overdose, primarily—although not only—among less than college-educated whites in their middle-aged years. Our research finds that poor whites report much less hope for the future and more stress than do poor African Americans and Hispanics, even though the latter face higher objective disadvantages, and the trends in optimism (or lack thereof) and other markers of well-being match the patterns in deaths of despair.

Central among the drivers of these trends is the decline in the status and wages of low-skilled labor at the same time that those of high-skilled workers increase. A related feature is the increase in prime-aged males (and to a lesser extent women) simply dropping out of the labor force. In the U.S., for example, 15 percent of prime-aged males are out of the labor force and will likely increase to over 20 percent. Males who are out of the labor force are disproportionately represented among opioid users, on disability rolls, and in the deaths of despair. Such men are also more likely to live in counties that voted for Trump in 2016. While the trends may be most notable in the U.S., there is frustration among this same cohort in Europe that is likely reflected in voting trends there as well as in the U.S.”

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