Why the Mortality Rate for Young Whites Is Now as High as It Was During the AIDS Epidemic


In November, two Princeton economists published a shocking study that found death rates for middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans were actually increasing, unlike death rates among every other demographic group. Despite advances in modern medicine that have lengthened life spans, Angus Deaton and Anne Case found that a surge in suicides and substance-abuse related overdoses and diseases was wreaking havoc on the population of poorly educated whites.

This weekend, the New York Times published an analysis of death certificates that shows that mortality rates are increasing dramatically not only for middle-aged whites, but for young whites as well. The death rate for non-Hispanic whites between the ages of 25 and 34 is now as high as it was during the AIDS epidemic over 20 years ago, marking the first time since the Vietnam War that the age cohort is worse off than the generation before it.

The Times attributes the the uptick in the mortality rate for young white Americans to skyrocketing drug overdoses. The number of drug overdose rates from both illegal and prescription drugs for 25- to 34-year-old whites has quintupled in the past 15 years. The spike in the overdose rate tracks with increased consumption of prescription opioids and heroin use among the demographic.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Length of life is a key indicator of quality of life, and a metric that's always been associated with class and education. The death rate for young whites "rose faster by any measure for the less educated, by 23% for those without a high school education," the Times reported.

The combined effect of the new findings on white mortality rates marks a grim kind of egalitarianism emerging in American life. One economist told the Times that the new finding demonstrates the smallest mortality gap between white and black Americans in "more than a century."

Why it matters: The new report is likely to add fuel to the boom in national interest in tackling the heroin epidemic, an issue that has garnered sustained attention from presidential candidates across both parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have increasingly called for drug addiction to be treated like a disease and for softening the penalties for low-level drug offenses.

Considering that the Republican Party spearheaded many of the tough-on-drugs policies still in effect today, it may sound counterintuitive that Republican candidates like Jeb Bush are sharing tragic tales of family members and friends suffering from drug addiction, calling for compassionate treatment on the campaign trail. But they're acutely aware of the fact that the demographic most deeply affected by the heroin epidemic — working class whites — are the backbone of the electoral coalition they need to win the White House. Regardless of what's motivating the party to change its tune on on the war on drugs, it bodes well for a country in desperate need of rethinking the way it manages drug use.