Have We Turned a Corner?

For the first time since 2014, life expectancy in the United States has risen after four years of decline, according to a report released this past Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall life expectancy rose to 78.7 years in 2018, a slight increase from 2017, when life expectancy stood at 78.6 years.

Despite the increase, life expectancy in the U.S only stands at where it did in 2010. In other words, we’ve had a decade of stagnation in our country’s life expectancy, the only Western nation to have no gain in this ultimate measure of national health.

Worse than that however, is this statistic: Life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen behind even poor nations, such as Portugal, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Slovenia, all of whom trailed far behind us in the 1990s.

Many factors have contributed to the recent national decline in life expectancy, most notably the opioid crisis, suicides, and alcohol abuse. These are what experts refer to as “deaths of despair,”  a statistic that has risen dramatically among the American white male population of all ages.

So here’s one question: If it is true that we are still amidst the longest economic recovery of all time, why have America’s “deaths of despair” reached an all-time high?

In our view, one obvious answer is this: The economic gains of the past decade have accrued only to the very wealthy, which in turn has resulted in many Americans falling out of the middle class and others not being able to get there.

Consider that the national minimum wage in the U.S. presently is a paltry $7.25. And just how paltry is it? If the increase in the minimum wage had kept pace with the increase in the cost of living for the past 50 years (the minimum wage in 1968 was $1.60), the minimum wage today would be about $22.00. If you do the math, the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. should be making at least $800 per week; instead, they are making only about $300 per week.  

However, the working poor are not the only ones who have been left out of our nation’s supposed economic growth. The median household income in the U.S. in 1968 was $7,700. If that figure had kept pace with the cost of living, the median income today would be more than $90,000. However, median household income in the U.S. in 2019 was just $63,000, far below where it should be.

So now ponder this thought: If things have remained bleak for many of our fellow Americans even during the longest economic expansion on record, what will happen when the next recession hits?

The bottom line in America in 2020 simply is this: The very wealthy are getting much wealthier, while everybody else is getting poorer, with the costs of housing, health care, nursing home care for seniors, and a college education increasingly eluding the grasp of the rapidly-sinking American middle-class.

The end result of this economic dislocation can be seen in our national health statistics that show an increase in “deaths of despair” and an overall decline in our national life expectancy.  The stark reality of America in 2020 comes down to this: Americans today are living shorter — and unhappier — lives.

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