Death rates among white, middle-aged Americans have gone up significantly in recent years, according to a recent study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two Princeton economists. Case and Deaton found that death rates for people in the 45 to 54 age group began steadily going up beginning in 1999. For middle-aged white people with a high school diploma or less, the mortality rate rose 22 percent between 1999 and 2013.
Why are relatively young white Americans dying at a higher rate than they did 15 years ago? Case and Deaton say most of the rising mortality rate can be attributed to suicide or deaths related to alcohol or drug abuse. It seems this age group may be experiencing a lot of stress, including economic stress, and are turning to alcohol and drugs to deal with it. “What we see here is a group that’s in quite a lot of distress,” said Ms. Case in a Wall Street Journal interview.
As Case and Deaton said in their report:
Although the epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible. After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education.
As everyone knows, Americans’ accumulated student-loan debt has been going up steadily over this same time period. Could there be a link between student-loan debt and rising mortality rates among middle-aged white Americans?
Deaton and Case did not examine student-loan indebtedness in their study, and any attempt to link student loans to rising death rates would be speculative. Moreover, Case and Deaton found that middle-aged people with college degrees had not experienced higher mortality rates.
Nevertheless, suicide rates for the Baby Boomer generation have gone up dramatically in recent years. According to a report by Katherine Hempstead and Julie Phillips, the suicide rate for people in the 40-64 age group has gone up 40 percent since 2007.
Hempstead and Philips suggest that economic problems may have contributed to the rising suicide rate among Baby Boomers, and that “adverse effects of economic difficulties on psychological well-being may have been greater for those who did not anticipate them; this may well have been the case for those who were educated and wealthier . . . .”
One thing is certain: Our federal government has constructed a student-loan scheme so heartless that it almost seems to have been designed to plunge millions of Americans into long-term clinical depression. So isn’t it reasonable to conclude that there is some connection between crushing student loans and rising suicide rates among middle-aged people?
Let’s examine some of the evidence pointing to growing stress among student-loan debtors:
As the New York Times recently pointed out, ten million people are in default on their student loans or delinquent on their loan payments.
According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, loan balances for a significant number of student-loan debtors actually went up after they entered the repayment phase of their loans. Why? Because a lot of people have obtained economic-hardship deferments that exempt them from making loan payments due to dire economic circumstances. But because they are not paying down accruing interest, their loan balances are getting larger, making them more difficult to pay off.
The percentage of elderly Americans with unpaid student-loan debt is going up. According to a report from the General Accounting Office, the percentage of people in the 65 through 74 age group with outstanding student loans grew from 1 percent in 2004 to 4 percent in 2010, a four-fold increase And the amount of student-loan debt owed by elderly people is growing as well. In fact, the amount of debt held by elderly Americans grew six fold between 2005 and 2013–from $2.8 billion in 2005 to $18.2 billion.
The federal government is garnishing more and more Social Security checks to collect on unpaid student loans. In 2002, only 31,000 people had Social Security benefits garnished because they had defaulted on their student loans. That number ballooned five fold in just 11 years. In 2013, 155,000 Americans saw their Social Security checks reduced due to unpaid student-loans.
Let’s consider that last bullet from a more personal perspective. According to a story posed on Market Watch, the U.S. government is garnishing the Social Security checks of Naomia Davis, an 80 year old woman who is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. Ms. Davis’s only income is her $894 Social Security check, and the feds take $134 of it to pay down on an old student loan.
In short, it is reasonable to conclude that crushing student-loan debt contributes to depression and even suicide among Baby Boomers who are struggling to pay off college loans they took out when they were young. The student loan crisis is not only eroding Americans’ sense of economic well being; it may be literally killing them.
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