Fact check: Deaths of despair and “white working class”

The Brookings Papers on Economic Activity published a report about its findings on so-called “deaths of despair”–overdose, suicide, and other sort of high-risk activities taken up by those with an inclination to self harm due to severe depression. This report divided the subjects by their racial demographics and found that it was the “white working class” who was actually dying the most, proportionately, from these deaths of despair. The news followed suit. But I had spotted a sleight of hand shortly after opening the report that made me suspicious of the methodology: White people were divided by whether or not they had attained a high school diploma, yet all other racial demographics were generalized into a single measurement.

Valid conclusion: All blacks are still suffering more deaths of despair than all whites.

All black folks are on average still suffering more deaths of despair than all white folks on average, but no question as to how education affects deaths of despair rate for PoCs.

After a bit of digging I estimated that the rest of the paper was analyzing topics I haven’t studied academically, so I  shrugged it off as out of my league. Thankfully Malcolm Harris picked up where I left off.

Much of the media has been reporting that these findings apply to the “white working class,” but that’s not quite right. Although higher education is associated with class, Case and Deaton chose to use educational attainment instead of income or homeownership, and no one really thinks you cease being a worker when you step on a college campus — that would make most Americans members of the capitalist class, which we are not. To call their subject the “working class” is sloppy labeling, but there is a much bigger problem with the Case and Deaton methodology.

That problem is called “lagged selection bias,” and this is how it works: If you’re measuring long-term phenomena, there’s a risk that the pool of people you’re looking at will change while you’re looking at them, owing to a separate trend. For example, if you were looking at the relation between 12th-grade cigarette smoking and income 10 years later, I’m sure that you’d find a serious drop during the past decade. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean the salaries of former teenage smokers are actually going down. Rather, smoking in the 12th grade has become a much rarer phenomenon — falling from 25 percent in 1997 down to 6 percent today — and it’s negatively associated with socioeconomic status. The 19 percent of high school seniors who would have smoked in the 1990s but wouldn’t think of it in 2017 throws off your analysis. What you’d actually end up detecting is not so much the relationship between teen smoking and future income, but changes in youth smoking behavior over time. The (ex-)smokers’ salaries could be increasing normally and you’d never know it by that method.

Read the rest of Harris’ analysis on this widely-reported paper here.




  1. polishsalami says

    If Harris’s point is that things are worse for black Americans than they are for whites, then it’s a fairly obvious and uncontroversial one. My sense is that these kind of articles are pushed in order to scupper any kind of solidarity between white and black workers.

    Then again, the people I associate with on social media have never rated Malcolm Harris very highly. Perhaps the bias is with me.

  2. Siobhan says


    If Harris’s point is that things are worse for black Americans than they are for whites, then it’s a fairly obvious and uncontroversial one.

    Evidently not, as Harris quoted several articles which repeated the claim that the white working class were the “true” victims. So it is controversial. Regardless, I was only concerned with whether the evidence presented supported the claim, and the distinction between white-without-highschool and white-with-highschool was the first sleight of hand I noticed because that distinction wasn’t made in the other ethnic demographics.

  3. kestrel says

    Yeah, that’s a good point, and it IS suspicious, isn’t it? It’s like they were thinking, “Well hey, they are ethnic minorities, of COURSE they didn’t go to college” which is.. well, not true.

  4. Siobhan says


    I suspect the actual effect they discovered is that all the socio-economic implications that correlate with post-secondary access translate into less stress, which means fewer deaths of despair. Unfortunately that is not what is being reported on.

  5. says

    PS – I’m not sure “class” is something that can be accurately measured or used as a measuring baseline. So I immediately start to get suspicious and search for a political agenda when someone talks about “working class” or, even worse, “middle class” because it just screams “we are going to throw the top percentage of the economy, and the bottom 70%, off the chart because they really distort the picture!” News: the picture is really distorted! We need to stop bending over backwards to look for rational socio-economic implications of shit that’s happening in the thin interstitial layer between “those who lost the class war” and “the servants of those who won” (maybe keep the winners off the chart because they are, literally, off the chart)

  6. says

    You know, I don’t even doubt that huge parts of the white working class are suffering, with jobs they thought to be guaranteed disappearing and them being mentally completely unequipped for the idea that their American Dream may just be that. But that doesn’t erase or excuse their racism and misogyny. It doesn’t excuse their complete stupidity in voting for the guy who is worse for the working class than Tribbles are for your larder.

    My last employer was more or less SJW Incorporate: a non-profit that has feminism and anti-racism written in their codex. They also probably helped more white working class dudes than anybody else in the state because instead of providing scapegoats they provide training and education.