This election cycle is looking like a slow motion tragedy for millions of mostly white, middle age blue-collar workers with only a high school education who’ve been marginalized by deindustrialization. This is roughly the population whose rising death rate was uncovered by Princeton University economists Angus Deaton and Annie Case. As reported by the New York Times last November, they found that “The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” The death rate for this population has been going up while the rate for African-Americans, Hispanics and the comparable white population in other rich countries has been declining over the same period.
Deaton and Case also found that it isn’t the usual suspects such as heart disease and diabetes but suicide and substance abuse driving this rising death rate. Because they’ve responded in such numbers to the racist, xenophobic appeals from sort-of Republican presidential sort-of candidate Donald Trump, these people have garnered scant sympathy from media commentators. But it beggars belief that they’re offing themselves just because the prospect of a minority-majority country decades hence casts them into such despair that they don’t think life is worth living beyond the next overdose. Something else has to be at work.
To get a handle on this, I think we have to understand that this population isn’t just under a lot of stress because of falling or stagnant incomes, though that’s got to be weighing on them, as it would on anybody. The sense of loss plaguing them is deeper, rooted in heavy industry’s storied history in this country. It was steel production and coal mining, among others, that were critical to winning World War II, raised skyscrapers, put millions of vehicles on the roads, bridged our waters, laid rails, reinforced giant dams, heated homes, etc., etc. At their peak, industries like steel and coal afforded people right out of high school manly, often dangerous work that did two things. It secured their place in their communities as providers for their families. But at least as important, it mobilized them in massive, transformative and highly visible projects reflecting national power and greatness. They could put in arduous hours at the blast furnace or on the face of a coal seam and emerge to the visible and valorized effects of their exertions everywhere they looked. Along with their middle-class incomes, the inhabitants of hollowed out Rust Belt communities lost the meaning and purpose that comes from contributing to a dynamic and thriving society instead of being excess baggage.
The chattering classes have reacted to all this as if these people haven’t been here all along but just landed from another planet. So their responses have been all over the place. The National Review, the leading mouthpiece for conservative intellectuals with ideology where other people have hearts, published a special issue in which some contributors rode their moral high horses right over the victims of globalization and technology, arguing that they have nothing to blame for their plight but their own moral failings. Accordingly, wrote the comfortable and well-compensated essayists, the people who’re dying at a higher rate than other Americans should be left to stew in their own oxycodone.
Other nostrums offered the blue collars have focused exclusively on various income boosters and bridge programs, such as wage insurance, expanded unemployment benefits, subsidies to employers who hire workers from distressed populations, even sweeping proposals for a universal guaranteed income. And of course there’s the ritual support for retraining programs, which haven’t been deployed to anything like the degree necessary to really make a difference.
But none of this assuages the sense of irrelevance that’s eating at many of the intended clients of these measures. In fact, some of them would just aggravate it. The idea of a guaranteed basic income, for example, is a favorite in Silicon Valley whose denizens are busy developing the software that’s going to reduce more and more workers to irrelevance.
In a flash of the feral intelligence that makes him both cunning and cluelessly cruel, often in the same breath, Donald Trump is the only figure on the national stage right now who seems to get what’s behind Rust Belt despair. In a speech to 200 people at an aluminum recycling plant in Monessen, Pennsylvania, recently, he said,
“The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape.
“But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal.”
Then he launched into his catalogue of proposals that informed opinion has nearly universally dismissed as worthy of Elmer Gantry. Tariffs and trade wars aren’t going to bring the steel mills back to Monessen. And even if they came back, they wouldn’t employ nearly as many people as they did in their heyday. Because of technology, not Chinese and Mexican dirty dealing, it takes far fewer people to make a ton of steel or mine a ton of coal today than it did decades ago. So all Trump’s offering the “poorly educated” supporters for whom he’s declared his love are cruel mirages.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton favors a policy that could actually address the plight of blue-collar workers but it’s buried under layers of numbing wonkiness on her campaign web site. She proposes $275 billion in federal funding for infrastructure upgrading over five years. Fifty billion of that would fund an infrastructure bank supporting various “credit enhancements” generating an additional $225 billion over that period. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, every $1 billion of infrastructure investment generates 13,000 jobs. So $500 billion over five years would be worth 6.5 million jobs.
There are three things about this proposal that make it worth taking very seriously. First, it’s desperately needed. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our infrastructure is so deeply in the tank that it would take $3.6 trillion—that’s trillion with a “t”– by 2020 to get it up to standard. Second, the work can’t be off-shored. You can send an air conditioner factory to Mexico, but you can’t send a highway project to Mexico and have it sent back when it’s done. Third, even if no one project would be as transformative as the Interstate Highway System was during the Eisenhower administration, investment even at the level Clinton proposes could restore among the workers involved the lost sense of purpose they used to derive from contributing to great undertakings of national and regional importance.
If that’s the upside, there’s a double downside. The big one is that all this would take government action. This is probably wishful thinking, but maybe the turmoil that’s caught both Republicans and Democrats flatfooted will be the come-to-Jesus moment that brings them together on behalf of millions of blue-collar Willie Lomans out there to whom “attention must be paid.”
But before anyone can even think about that, Hillary Clinton has to go to the pockets of Rust Belt despair and persuade the inhabitants that she “gets it,” that she’s not a soulless wonk who can only talk in white papers and policy briefings, that she grasps their longing to count for something, to be participants again in the nation’s great work. She has to tell them that the country needs them and call them to more exalted service than what passes for success these days in Monessen, Pennsylvania: creating special effects for monster movies. It’s anybody’s guess whether she will.