Desperation and the American Dream

Brookings Institute Professor Carol Graham pierces the idea of the American Dream

“After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman famously said this after losing his job and before he committed suicide in order to claim his life insurance for his family. While Miller’s famous Death of a Salesman was set in the United States of the 1940s, it is eerily reminiscent now.

Willy’s story is tragic but not unique. He works hard and travels nonstop as a salesman but fails to keep a stable job. One of his sons catches him cheating on his wife Wilma, threatening the family he so values. Neither of his sons make it to college, dashing the parents’ dreams of their children doing better than they are. By the end of his life, Willy has not only lost his income, but also his dignity, his identity, and his hopes in a society that seems to value material gain and little else.

In today’s US, there are literally millions of Willies – and Wilmas – dying of so called deaths of despair. These are deaths due to suicide, drug overdose and liver disease, and unidentified causes.

‘Making America great again’ is a false promise of a return to the past, and the associated rhetoric has only made things worse.

The deaths of despair are continuing to increase, labour force participation has not increased even as there are more jobs, and mass shootings directed at minorities and immigrants by angry white extremists are on the rise. Is America falling apart? Is the American Dream that we cherished for so long gone forever?

Deaths of despair are occurring most often among less than college-educated whites. These despairing fellow citizens live primarily but not only in the rural and suburban heartland. The same deaths are far less prevalent among minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics, nor are they common in urban coastal areas. Their magnitude, which has increased markedly in the past decade, has been large enough to raise the overall US mortality rate at the same time that life expectancy is gradually increasing among US minorities.

In the meantime, almost all other wealthy countries with equivalent and even much lower incomes are seeing continual decreases in their mortality rates.

Standard economic indicators for the US tell a story of rising levels of prosperity: booming stock markets, record low levels of unemployment, and impressive technological advances. Yet these numbers mask large sectors of the economy that are not faring well, with the worst toll on unskilled workers. An increasing share of less than college educated prime age males – 15-20% – is dropping out of the labour force altogether. They are often on disability insurance, are disproportionate consumers of opioids, tend not to be married, and are isolated at home playing video games and related activities. Not surprisingly, this same group displays high levels of desperation, stress, and anger in addition to premature mortality. Unemployment figures are low in part because the drop in labour force participation simply shrinks the denominator in the calculation of the rate. These economic indicators also mask unprecedented increases in inequality and decreasing rates of inter-generational mobility.

My research with Sergio Pinto, based on in-depth analysis of Gallup data, finds that these same markers of illbeing match closely with the rates of deaths of despair. The places where these rates are highest are also the same ones where the bulwarks of white blue collar jobs – the auto and coal mining industries and other sources of traditional manufacturing jobs – began to disappear in the 1970s and then accelerated in this decline in the 1990s, in part due to Chinese competition. The other part of the story is the increased dominance of technology driven growth, which is concentrated in vibrant urban economies primarily on the coast.

A high school education no longer guarantees a stable job and a middle class life, as it did for the fathers of these workers. While these trends affect women as well as men, they are starker for men, perhaps because women are more likely to have identities outside the work place.

The Ozzie and Harriet narrative of the hard working blue collar white male holding down a stable job and supporting a household is gone, as are the marriages that went with the jobs.

These trends surfaced around the time of the first manufacturing declines. My historical research with Kelsey O’Connor, beginning with individuals born in the 1930s and 1940s and running until 2015, finds that the only population group that experienced a decline in optimism – beginning precisely in the 1970’s – was less than college educated whites, particularly males.

Yet this is not the only part of the story in the US. Juxtaposed against desperation and deaths of despair among blue collar whites are high levels of optimism and lower levels of reported stress among African American and Hispanic minorities – poor blacks in particular – even though they are more materially deprived than poor whites, and continue to face discrimination. Yet poor blacks are three times more likely to be a step higher up on our 11-point optimism scale than are poor whites, and half as likely to report stress, even though objectively they likely experience more stress on a daily basis than do whites.


What explains these trends? In part, minorities have continued to make gradual if hard fought progress – in terms of education, marriage, and longevity. While previously, racial differences primarily explained both education and marriage gaps, today the bulk of the explanation lies in income differences. As such, poor whites typically do not do better in education than do poor blacks or Hispanics, nor are they more likely to be married. While blacks and Hispanics have lower levels of life expectancy than whites, the gap has been gradually narrowing over time – from a seven year gap in 1990 to a three year gap in 2014. Blue collar whites are more likely to report to live worse than their parents did, while poor minorities are more likely to report that they live better. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin finds that respondents who report to live worse than their parents have lower levels of life satisfaction and are less likely to trust others and the government. Rather ironically, low-income minorities are now more likely to believe in the American dream than are low-income whites.

This speaks to some of the sources of the remarkable levels of resilience that poor minorities have, likely because they – and their parents – have had to deal with adversity and discrimination over time. At the same time that blue collar whites had privileged access to the American Dream – and strongly believed that those who worked hard got ahead and those who did not were unwilling to work, poor minorities had to fight for their rights and had much more experience with unexpected shocks and falling behind.

Perhaps because of this (and also due to much weaker public safety nets in the US than in other countries of comparable levels of income), they build much stronger informal support systems – such as the Baptist church for African Americans in the south and extended family ties for Hispanic migrants. These ties did not provide the stable jobs that blue collar whites had. Yet they were critical in bad times, and they continue to play a strong role today. When things were going well, blue collar whites did not need such safety nets and at the same time were (and still are) skeptical of government support – to the point they are more willing to trust business, even when it ruins their environment, as Arlie Hochschild writes so eloquently in Strangers in Their Own Land. More recently, my colleague Isabel Sawhill, in research based on focus groups for her new book The Forgotten Americans, finds that many low income whites who are in difficult straits still eschew government programs and simply want a decent job.

As much research in behavioral economics finds, individuals value losses disproportionately more than equal sized gains. Political science research finds that economic crisis and associated losses in status often explain extremist voting. Lost hope also matters. As Dan Witters, Diana Liu, and others find in the Gallup data, voting for Trump and his nativist, anti-immigrant, and racist agenda was highest among individuals who experienced drops in life satisfaction and optimism in the four years preceding the election. Sadly, the result of that election and subsequent events is an increasingly divided society in which antimigrant and racist sentiments are encouraged, and in which civic discourse has been lost.

There is no obvious solution. Yet there are pockets of hope, renovation, and resilience that we must look to for broader lessons. Some dying manufacturing towns riddled with opioids, such as Detroit, have begun to turnaround. The remarkable trends in poor minority optimism have stayed steady despite Trump and his rhetoric, and it seems that the challenge may have increased resilience. For all the division that has incited horrible attacks, many communities – most recently Pittsburgh – have come together in their resolve to prevent hate from triumphing and destroying America and its dream.

Another example is Huntington, West Virginia, where people managed to turn around a dying coal mining town with some of the worst poverty and health indicators in the US – including opioid addiction – into a thriving place that is creating jobs and defeating drugs and obesity. The effort has required the entire community – the private and public sectors, local government, and non-government organizations – to come together and work together. Key to the success of such efforts is restoring individual hope and a sense of collective spirit.

Take the comeback towns in the Midwest, which also combine the efforts of public and private sectors to improve public infrastructure and education as a means to attract investments from coastal firms, via outsourcing mid-level programming and other jobs in the tech sector. Or read up on the many experiences within and outside the US – such as by the City of Santa Monica and the UK government – that regularly track metrics of wellbeing as a gauge to societal wellbeing and to that information as a basis for interventions that help those living in deprived communities regain their sense of worth. Those interventions can be as simple as increasing opportunities for volunteering or participating in the arts, or the provision of more green spaces.

As noted above, there are many stories that the standard income metrics do not tell, such as the large percentage of prime aged males out of the work force. Another is the lost hope underlying the deaths of despair because no one (besides me) was comparing optimism levels across rich and poor and across different poor racial groups. As our historical work shows, had we been tracking wellbeing regularly, we would have found worrisome drops in optimism and rising stress and anger well before the crisis underlying the deaths of despair set in – and well before that desperation and anger fuelled the 2016 political outcome that is tearing our society further apart.

Our standard metrics and economic models support a model of progress measured by increases in material wealth. This is often at the expense of other aspects of life that matter much more to most human beings: such as dignity and meaningful work; the ability to support and spend time with family and friends; having empathy and being altruistic; and having access to decent health care and a safety net to fall back on in hard times.

This is not a new problem in the US, which has always valued hard work and success over collective efforts to support society in general. The tragic story of Willy Loman tells it all too well. Yet Willy’s problems loom much larger now. There is no New Deal for society (nor is there Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership), and collective spirit has deteriorated into tribal, visceral discourse and an increasing violence of desperation. Standard economic metrics and models will not solve this crisis. Without looking for deeper solutions that restore the soul and dignity of all Americans – including those who fall behind, we will lose the American Dream. And the America that we know as a beacon for individuals around the world seeking a dream of fairness and opportunity – embodied by the Statue of Liberty – will also be lost.


Carol Graham

Carol Graham is the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a College Park Professor at the University of Maryland, and a Senior Scientist at Gallup. Her books include: Happiness for All? Unequal Lives and Hopes in Pursuit of the American Dream (Princeton University Press, 2017) and The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being (Brookings, 2011; published in Chinese, Japanese and Korean). Graham is the senior editor of Behavioral Science and Policy, and an associate editor at the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. She has been a consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, and the Harvard Institute for International Development, helping to design safety net programs in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Born in Lima, Peru, Graham has an A.B. from Princeton University, an M.A. from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a Ph.D. from Oxford University. She is the mother of three children.