Given the amount of coverage that The Washington Post and The New York Times have given our state this past year, maybe they should open a news bureau in Oklahoma. At the same time, maybe we should pay more attention to the stories they tell about our state and the more rural parts of the country in general.
‘Deaths from despair’ reduce life expectancy
In 2016, the Post and the Times covered research on the shocking decline in life expectancy for low-income, middle-aged whites in Oklahoma and many other states that supported then-candidate Donald Trump. The study, led by Raj Chetty, was originally published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The JAMA study recommended that health professionals “make targeted efforts to improve health among low-income populations in cities, such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.”
The dramatic decline of life expectancy for many of these people, who were likely to be poorly educated and facing a loss of family and community connections, were labeled “deaths from despair.”
As 2017 comes to a close, we learn that life expectancy of Americans has declined for two years in a row. The last time that happened was 1962-’63. Is it a coincidence that the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1 percent is back up to 40 percent, the highest since 1962?
Scourge of opioids worse in Oklahoma
We later learned how one of its greatest great killers, opioids, was promoted by Big Pharma. The Times reported that opioids remain a major cause of death, killing 10 of every 100,000 Americans. In extreme cases, such as Pushmataha County, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, the death rates are 41 to 41.5 per 100,000. Now, drug deaths in urban America and for African-Americans are increasing even faster than those of whites.
As we speak of deaths due to despair, let’s not forget that the rise of corporate power contributed to the loss of hope for many, as well as the inequality that is eating away at our quality of life. And that brings us to the latest Washington Post headline: ‘I Hope I Can Quit Working in a Few Years’: A Preview of the U.S. Without Pensions.
As the Post explains, in the early 1990s, about 60 percent of full-time workers at medium and large companies had pensions, but only about 24 percent of comparable workers now have the pensions necessary to supplement Social Security payments, which average $14,000 a year. The Post notes that we can debate about the overall causes of the decline, but it shows how this sad story was made worse by corporations skirting the law as well as changing the rules of the economic game.
A New Year’s resolution for 2018
These tragedies paved the way for Trumpism. All too often, it was the victims of the increased inequality and the loss of community who helped elect President Donald Trump. They will be among the people who are likely to be hurt the most by his presidency, but we must stop the blame game. We will all be damaged if our democracy can’t address our growing economic and public health problems.
I understand the anger directed at the victims of de-industrialization who responded to their pain by voting for a President who promised to “Make America Great Again,” but let’s not discount the suffering of these largely blue-collar workers. If we can’t unite and battle against growing inequities, what will the future bring, especially for millennials?
How’s this for a modest New Year’s Resolution: Whenever the suffering of Oklahomans reaches the point where it is covered in The Washington Post and The New York Times, let’s respond with empathy, regardless of the politics of the situation. If we could pull that off, perhaps we can be more sensitive to the needs of other Americans and global citizens.