‘Deaths of Despair’ Worsen Among Americans Lacking College Degrees

In the U.S., a four-year degree is increasingly a “talisman” against deaths related to suicide and economic hardship, according to a new research paper that offers a stark verdict on the current economy.

While the suicide rate almost doubled among White non-Hispanics without a bachelor’s degree in the 1992-2019 period to about 31 per 100,000 people, there was almost no increase among those with a degree, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton wrote in their September paper. Covid-19 likely exacerbated deaths of despair from opioid overdoses -- already increasing pre-pandemic -- as people grew more isolated and more fentanyl showed up in other drugs.

The broader issue, though, is that the U.S. economy and society “are no longer providing the basis for a good life” for the less-educated.

“Even if the opioid epidemic is brought under control,” the researchers wrote, “the underlying despair is likely to remain. The prospects for less-educated Americans remain bleak unless there are fundamental changes in the way that the American economy operates.” The two economic scholars -- a married couple -- last year had a New York Times bestseller in their book entitled “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”

Case coined the term “deaths of despair” in 2015, when she studied the rise of suicides and drug and alcohol-fueled deaths among working class Whites in the U.S., following the decline of the manufacturing sector. Since then, Black and Hispanic deaths have also skyrocketed.