Middle-aged people laid off and unable to find work are taking another way out. They're killing themselves. Suicide rates are soaring, according to federal data released last week. Especially in economically depressed states and job-starved regions like upstate New York. People in need of work are twice as likely to take their own lives as employed people, and people fired in their forties and fifties find it hardest to get hired again.
That makes boosting economic growth a life and death issue. But you wouldn't know it listening to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. President Obama whitewashes reality, claiming the "American economy is pretty darn good right now."
False. The Obama economy is stalled. It grew at a measly 0.7% annualized rate in the first quarter of this year. That's compared with the 3.5% rate the U.S. enjoyed for most of the 20th century. That's the growth needed to sustain employment and optimism.
True, the economy slowed under George W. Bush. Obama inherited a recession, and with it, a suicide epidemic. When the recession hit, suicide deaths suddenly started outnumbering deaths from auto accidents. But eight years later, job losses are still driving the suicide rate higher and higher.
Hillary Clinton seems not to care. She's pledging to close down the coal industry and block fracking of natural gas. Which means more pain for coal country and for portions of upstate New York that are sitting on natural gas treasure. Self-inflicted deaths in the Syracuse area are up about 40% in the past five years, and rates in depressed western New York are double New York City's rate, all attributable to economic distress. Upstate New Yorkers are literally dying for jobs.
Similarly, joblessness is killing people in Walker County, Alabama, where the coal mines have been shutting down, leaving families destitute. Since 1999, premature deaths among the middle-aged there have more than doubled -- some from suicide and others from slower methods of self-destruction like alcohol and opioids. Anne Case, a Princeton University economist, has documented the rapid increase in premature deaths, a consequence of "millions of people ... in pain."
New Jersey used to have one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation, but it's shot up 13% in two years. "We've seen a wave of suicides that resulted from the financial crisis a little bit later than other parts of the country," reports prevention advocate Phil Lubitz.
Stagnating wages are linked to suicide in every state. Montana, which has the highest suicide rate in the nation, in part because of the isolated lifestyle there, has seen the same sudden surge as elsewhere in the nation. "Probably the biggest reason is socio-economic," says Karl Rosston, Montana's suicide prevention coordinator.
Economic distress is so widespread that for the first time ever, life expectancy of white women in the U.S. actually dropped. Despite progress against cancer and heart disease, lives are being cut short by hopelessness.
It's a national health emergency. Suicide kills more middle-agers than flu, pneumonia and diabetes combined. They often occur after dashed expectations, abandonment by a spouse and loss of self-worth. Then, a bullet to the head or a noose (for men), or a deliberate drug overdose (for women) ends the pain.
These tragedies should awaken this nation to the real issue in the coming presidential election. It is not inequality, despite Bernie Sanders' rants. It's lack of growth and the Democratic Party's refusal to make growth a priority.
People don't kill themselves because their neighbor has more money. They take their life when they can see no way to get a job, support their family and regain self-worth.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts that with current policies in effect, growth will lumber along at less than 3% -- too little to stop the suicides.
Every candidate should be putting forward policies to jumpstart the economy -- including lowering corporate tax rates, deregulating, improving international trade deals, and wooing companies and capital back into the U.S.
Job-killing policies are people-killers, too. Suicide spiked during the Depression in 1933, rose and fell with economic growth thereafter, and hit an all time low with the tech boom in 2000. Now, 10 years of economic stagnation are producing another wave of human tragedy, as laid off workers see no way out except death.
- McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and author of "Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution."