Why White Working Class Americans Are Dying “Deaths of Despair”

As an educator for all students, I find this article amazingly alarming. Why? Many of our students are having to face these challenging factors.  As I noted in prior article, these challenging factors equate to Adverse Childhood Events. Our school counselors, administrators, and teachers should be in the know about this alarming research so that we can do a better job of dealing with all students despite their origin.  All of our students are counting on us.

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Behind the death spiral are growing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, liver diseases and cirrhosis. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

He was alone and miserable, cleaning up a strike station in Peoria, Illinois, where members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) had lived in the heat and the cold.

The UAW had just folded its standoff against Caterpillar after years of strikes and was returning to work largely on the terms the company had first laid down.

“We were losers when we came back from Vietnam,” the muscular, middle-aged worker told me nearly two decades ago. “We were losers when we put up this battle and now we’ve lost the American dream.”

Workers like him have been losing more than their American dream. They’ve been losing their lives.

In 2015, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton pointed out that the death rate of middle-aged white Americans had changed direction and spurted upward, reversing years of steady decline. The “turnaround” was mostly driven by the deaths of those with a high school degree or less.

Delving into questions raised by that study, the economists’ latest analysis finds that the grim reality has continued to touch working class white Americans with limited educations. And they predict that these middle-aged Americans are likely “to do much worse in old age than those currently older than 65.”

Behind the death spiral are growing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, liver diseases and cirrhosis, the economists say. They liken the trend to the sudden emergence of an iceberg rising up out the water.


What makes these middle-aged white workers different from black or Latino workers in the United States in the same economic straits, or from workers in similarly rich nations—all of whom show declining death rates?

Indeed, as Deaton explained in a recent NPR interview, these white Americans’ death rate now exceeds the rate for black Americans “as a whole.”

“It’s as if poorly educated whites have now taken over from blacks as the lowest rung in terms of mortality rates,” he said in the interview.

Without pinpointing a specific reason, Deaton and Case suggest that the cycle of “deaths of despair” comes from the collapse of jobs and benefits for these workers who then tumble into heart-breaking problems of physical and emotional health, family difficulties, drugs and just plain survival. It is a portrait of cascading hopelessness, where workers go from stagnating wages to joblessness to dropping out of the job market.

If you’ve spent any time listening to workers’ heartbreak for the last few decades as I have, however, it is saddening to hear the shock and controversy among experts over the economists’ last two reports.

They could have heard the cries for help building.

All they needed to do was spend some time in a union hall, hang out at an unemployment office, kill an afternoon in a bar or the gloomy living room of a worker on the decline to hear the despair that fills workers’ hearts. But this is an especially American tragedy rooted in our workaday DNA.

An American dilemma because when good-paying jobs began to vanish for workers with a strong back, grit to do a tough or mindless job and little education besides high school, it’s like somebody stole their soul.

Many blue-collar workers, who once earned decent wages, thought they owned their jobs and what comes with it. But most American companies don’t agree.

Many American workers once thought that their tire factory, steel plant, paper mill or garment mill would never shut down and would be there for their children. But fate dealt a different hand for workers and their families in Akron, Gary, Youngstown and across the South, where the garment industry vanished in a huff.

Traveling to these places and more, I realized that the most lethal wound from the hollowing out of blue-collar jobs for American workers is the psychic one. Seeking out local union officials in the 1980s at places where the jobs had disappeared, I found that some had died suddenly or sunk into solemn silence. They had tried to stand tall, to help their rank and file move on, but there was little help from their union or their government and the future kept on darkening all around them.

Helping these workers hasn’t been easy because so many blame themselves and not the companies or the American way of doing business for the misfortune that suddenly enveloped them. One day I talked a young worker out of suicide. He’d failed to get back on his feet after his small auto parts plant in southern Michigan had shut down and blamed himself.

I’ve met with wives of striking workers in Decatur, Illinois, who came together to help each other because their husbands had slipped into silence or were numbing themselves with alcohol. I spent time with a grief-stricken husband, whose union was on strike, and whose wife died during a demonstration. I spoke often with a labor-friendly priest in Decatur, who was stunned by the last words a wife gave her husband. He had returned unhappily to work after a long-term lockout and had been fatally injured in a car accident. She told her dying husband that at least he would not have to go back to the job.

Not long ago, I met with a middle-aged worker in Chicago, the sole source of income for her family, who fell into a deep depression when Mondelez International said it was moving a large chunk of workers’ jobs at its Nabisco bakery to Mexico.

Soon after she was laid off, a job opened up and she was called back. But her fears about her future had already taken a powerful toll.

After hearing news of the layoffs, the woman had begun losing her hair until she was totally bald. The bakery workers union is fighting the move with a boycott of the firm’s Mexican-made products.

Unaware of her mother’s situation, her teenage daughter was stunned when she returned home from college and saw her mother. “I was scared,” she said. “I thought she had cancer.”

She didn’t have cancer. But she had, indeed, succumbed to an illness—heartbreak.

If at all possible, finish your dissertation prior to graduating

I saw this article and decided to comment on this article about completing your dissertation.

I had the pleasure of attending Cardinal Stritch University of Milwaukee, WI. I loved the cohort set up because colleagues looked out for one another and challenged one another to finish their dissertation prior to completing all course work. If you did not finish the dissertation, we were challenged to have gone through IRB.

Not only did colleagues challenge each other, the faculty or professors also motivated students to complete the dissertation. This was tremendously helpful. The majority of cohort 28 had their dissertation finish prior to graduating with PhD.  When one does not, it is severely difficult to finish due to job, life, and family. I did not say it was impossible, I am saying it is extremely difficult.  So if at all possible, please make sure you have at least gone through IRB prior to graduating.  Write everyday no matter what. You will be grateful to say the least!!

Please click on the link below:



The Importance of Non-Academic Factors and College Readiness

Most parents, dream of their children’s graduation from college and successful careers, this is especially true for parents who have not attended any higher education institutions (Conley, 2010). Parents rely on high schools to provide the academic preparation necessary for college success. However, high school graduation does not necessarily equate with college readiness. Many students are not prepared for success in college (ACT, 2012).

It’s well established that GPA, completing rigorous coursework , and high American College Testing (ACT) scores greatly impact students’ college preparedness and students’ ability to meet first year of college demands.  These are known as academic factors. Though academic factors are extremely important, this article is for the purpose of providing insight into Non-Academic Factors that improve college preparedness as well as retention beyond the first year of college.

High School to Post-Secondary

The transition to post-secondary institutions is a huge life change for all students. (Tinto, 1993). In his theoretical model, Tinto (1993) focuses on several predictors of retention and success in college.  Academic and nonacademic preparation during K-12 and adjusting to college life are more likely to predict students who drop out of college during their freshman year. Students drop out for many reasons such as a lack of financial aid, being unprepared for college therefore students cannot meet academic rigor, personal reasons, and inability to adapt to their chosen institution.

Tinto (1993) suggests that “college ready” transition to college is categorized under Academic and Non-Academic adjustments. Academic adjustment enables students to grasp at least minimum standards regarding academic performance. Non-academic indicators include, social integration, becoming actively involved, and building relationships with faculty, psychological and physical stability and individual’s ability to fit with the institution, and a sense of belonging. College can be the best four years of one’s life, however, it is a time when students must adapt to obscure situations filled with new challenges and barriers. This transition separates students from their childhood friends. Students are forced into challenging new task, roles, routines, and relationships. It is time for students to put into practice all of the social skills, norms, and expectations taught by their immediate family, because college life allows for more freedom, independence, and responsibility. As a result of this transition, identity transformation also takes place, which forces students to choose their own actions. Therefore, it is imperative for the universities to implement interventions that are designed to serve the well-being of students, which enhance retention. Non-academic factors are just as important as academic factors. Social integration and college support are imperative components for student’s endurance (Tinto, 1975, 1993). Tinto disclosed that less than 25% of students who dropout from postsecondary schools, are related to academic problems. Majority of students cut ties due to failure with integration. Students become unhappy with college life expectancies and develop feelings of isolation. Tinto’s Longitudinal model of Departure describes an “interactive model of student departure” (p. 112) and as “primarily sociological in character” (p. 113). Tinto (1987) put forward as a basis of argument that students prior to college experiences such as psychological skills, family background, secondary schooling, impact students’ goals and resilience. As a result, students’ goals influence university experiences.

Non-Academic Factors                                                                                              

The author’s areas of focus for this article are Non-Academic factors.  Non-Academic factors are seldom acknowledged when considering whether or not a student is college ready.  Consequently, non-academic factors can be strong predictors as it relates to preparing students to persevere through rigorous coursework and calculated expectations of postsecondary institutions. School districts more than not, solely focus on Academic factors such as rigorous coursework completion, high school grade point average (HSGPA), and ACT scores and never consider other factors associated with students’ college preparedness. Non-academic factors such as students’ confidence, self-motivation, finances, social support, family support, and some researchers would say the most important non-academic factor is social integration. Social Integration is considered a postsecondary student’s ability to connect with others through joining organizations, meeting and building relationships with new positive friends, and developing friendships with college employees (Tinto, 1975). These practices reduce the chances of students feeling home sick or a sense of loneliness.  Both contribute to students dropping out of college.

All students who enter college have gone through K-12 exposed to contrasting experiences. Research findings by Stupinsky, Renaud, Perry, Ruthig, Haynes, and Clifton (2007) suggest individual differences have a major impact on students’ post-secondary achievement. Adaptability, endurance, motivation, self-efficacy, self-control, mindset and self-regulation leverage how students react to academic expectations of college, college life expectations, and transitioning.  Mind-sets are the attitudes, beliefs, and emotions students have about themselves and schooling (Dweck, 2006; Walton, & Cohen, 2011). Examples include engagement, motivation, self-efficacy, and persistence (Robbins et al., 2004).

Academic preparedness cannot live in isolation. Students who complete AP courses, score high on ACT/SAT, and earn high grade point averages are less likely to drop-out of college due to poor academic performance. Instead, dropping out is possibly due to their inability to integrate socially as well as not being motivated by their college selection.  First year students who join orientation programs have a higher success rate in college opposed to students who do not participate in such social clubs. Research findings also suggest students who were admitted to colleges with a low ACT score and grade point average but yet had strong social connections and supports, had much better graduation success (Schnell, 2003). These findings also “suggest students’ entering characteristics play an important role in persistence to graduation, but potential for success can be increased with the addition of first-year programs” (Lotkowski, Robbins, & Noeth, 2004, p. 14).  Furthermore, research results support the notion that when schools consider pre-college academic strength such as GPA, ACT scores, and non-academic predictors students’ performance increases and the same can be said for their sustainability through rigorous post-secondary years.  ACT (2010; 2012) research shows that differences in college success across racial/ethnic and income groups narrow when students have the requisite academic achievement and relevant nonacademic skills (Robbins, 2004; 2006).

Alliance of Academic and Non-Academic Factors

College retention programs can do a better job of retaining students by combining both academic and non-academic factors. The most compelling alliance to retention happens when academic and the most important non-academic factors are parallel to each other (Asera, 1998; O’Brien & Shed, 2001; Tucker, 1999). Many students with poor academic performance still endure the rigor of college due to their social integration and feelings of belonging with their chosen college. Universities that implement programs that embrace mentoring and support groups into their school’s mission, enhances levels of student involvement, motivation, and academic self-confidence. Consequently, students ultimately remain committed to the institution (Padgett & Reid, 2003). Interventions will help keep students actively engaged as well as help students meet the expectations of academia and college life transitions.


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