Krugman: Heartland of Darkness

From Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal blog

Increasing death rate

This graphic paints a sharp rise in death rates from before 2000 for middle-aged white folk. It’s a startling reversal of what many expect, especially when compared to the continued declines in numerous European countries. As Krugman notes in his post:

This picture goes along with declining labor force participation and other indicators of social unraveling. Something terrible is happening to white American society. And it’s a uniquely American phenomenon; you don’t see anything like it in Europe, which means that it’s not about a demoralizing welfare state or any of the other myths so popular in our political discourse.

There’s a lot to be said, or at any rate suggested, about the politics of this disaster. But I’ll come back to that some other time. For now, the thing to understand, to say it again, is that something terrible is happening to our country — and it’s not about Those People, i’’s about the white majority.

One thing to note that in Wisconsin employment has been largely stagnant since the Great Recession. Compare employment data from the September 2007, September 2008, and the September 2011 monthly jobs reports with the September 2015 monthly jobs report. In all of these reports, the August data has been revised and is considered final. Here are the differences from the August 2015 employment data in 2011, 2008, and 2007:

Wisconsin Employment Data

So, in August 2015 the civilian labor force was only 16,100 individuals larger than what it was in August 2011 and still slightly smaller from what it was in August 2008 (when the recession was kicking in) or just slightly larger than in August 2007. Actual employment in August 2015 is just under 120,000 more than what existed in August 2011 but just 15,600 more than the 2,918,900 in August 2008. Private and government employment figures are likewise relatively flat. Yes, 76,100 private sector jobs have been added to Wisconsin’s economy from August 2011 to August 2015. But, August 2015 private sector jobs are still 8,600 less than what existed in August 2008 and just 3,600 more than what existed in August 2007.

In short, the jobs picture in Wisconsin is just awful: the state is just now getting back to a level of jobs that existed in 2008, nearly seven years later. Given that economic growth in the early 2000s was poor to begin with, it is not at all surprising that too many have been caught in the kind of despair that the lack of good, paying jobs brings.

UPDATE (9 Nov. 2015): Krugman has a follow-up in his column today:

So what is going on? In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.

That sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but the truth is that we don’t really know why despair appears to be spreading across Middle America. But it clearly is, with troubling consequences for our society as a whole.