A recent post from Scott Sumner, ("Lateral Thinking") encouraged more debate in comments about a recent study on longevity for American whites. While there are obvious issues regarding separation of race and age in the study, the paper at least holds value for prompting these discussions. In short: a certain degree of longevity decline has occurred in the U.S. However, the decline has occurred in a broader context than the authors were able to take into consideration.
In this post I'll just touch on a few issues that contribute to health problems for anyone, which can affect longevity. Chief among these are economic uncertainty, which can be problematic for anyone regardless of income or current economic access. Any time that one's economic activities and patterns are disturbed, their health is going to suffer. As one gets older, maintaining health will only become more of an issue. In spite of recent jobs gains in the marketplace, certainties in job formation remain in doubt for the near future.
The emphasis on drugs and suicide in the above linked paper was somewhat misleading, given the fact these exist both as coping mechanisms and reactions to previously existing problems. It's unfortunate that studies such as this - which too often address narrow sets of particulars - consequently frame important dialogues so that basic underlying issues are not easily addressed.
Worse, ill defined particulars tend to become talking points or fodder for opposing sides. The older I get, the more difficult it becomes for me to identify with political (or social) "tribes". Among other things, these groups generate policies which mostly mean more economic uncertainty for the "opposing" side. Wouldn't it be better to encourage institutions which generate less economic uncertainty, to begin with?
Today's healthcare - for instance - can actually contribute to worse health outcomes in a financial sense. People try to joke about it, but opening the medical bills after the last hospital visit can actually restart a cycle of illness. The possibility of healthcare needs can especially be problematic, if undue worry or stress also contributes to job loss.
One reason individuals sometimes opt out of borderline employment, is because of the possibility of work stress generating healthcare bills they might otherwise avoid. By borderline, I mean taking a job with limited pay (or requirements which tax resource capacity) that could even shorten one's lifespan, once substantial health concerns start to set in.
When it comes to longevity, so many issues are at stake that it's not easy to make broad generalizations about the issue. Even so, there's little doubt that environments with more economic certainty - such as less difficult consumption expectations - would be a boost for overall longevity. One caveat: production reform needs to occur in terms of both services and asset formation. It is simply unreasonable to expect all incomes to match the demands of general equilibrium.
Before wrapping up this post, some thoughts on cultural and geographic circumstance for white Americans. Many who came from rural areas, have had extra hurdles for economic access after high school graduation, which affect lifetime trajectories and longevity. At the top of the list is regular transportation to and from cities, for work and also any further education one may seek.
Rural areas suffer from a lack of local work options, which can mean problems for "liftoff" upon high school graduation. At this time, the graduate is already in need of a car, but he or she already needed prior work, to be able to purchase one. Young adults deserve the chance to set aside money for this time of change, years before they are actually expected to go out on their own and make their own destinies. Economic participation from a young age, in the form of compensated time arbitrage on the part of local corporations, would ease burdens on both individuals and families.
Culturally, as at least one commenter noted at Scott Sumner's above linked post, the nuclear family (in the U.S.) is "supposed" to be prepared to support one's own children. Even extended families here have long accepted this as a sort of silent "rule". Just the same: should parents be facing their own economic struggles when a young adult is about to graduate high school, they may not be able to provide substantial assistance to their children in this time of transition.
Instead of blaming the families involved, why not create institutions which are more supportive of individuals at local levels? Stasis in longevity is not necessary, in the U.S. But it needs to be dealt with in terms of the circumstance which people actually face in their lives, instead of constant judgments as to what people are doing wrong.