Changing Times

Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen almost 28%, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a rate almost 50% higher than the global average rate. The increase in the rate centers largely on middle-aged white Americans over 50 and among male teenagers 15-19. Although overall teenage suicide rates are still below the national average, they’ve doubled over the past ten years.

What both of these groups have in common is a growing mismatch between personal expectations and an increasingly bleak reality for Americans who do not have the skills to compete for jobs, as well as those who do not have the resources to obtain those skills. Suicide rates for middle aged Americans who do not have a college degree are now more than twice as high as for those who do.

Yet there persists in the United States the myth of the American dream, that anyone can work hard and pull themselves out of poverty. Current statistics show that today only three percent of individuals born in the bottom 20% of the population in income terms will rise to the top 20%. Studies by the Urban Institute and the US Treasury have both found that about half of the families who start in either the top or the bottom quintile of the income distribution are still there after a decade, and that only 3 to 6% rise from bottom to top or fall from top to bottom. The U.S. now has the lowest intergenerational income mobility of any developed country.

How did this happen? It happened because the myth of the American Dream worked, at least in a way, while the U.S. was still a nation with a frontier. Now that the frontier doesn’t exist, it’s much harder to get out of poverty without skills, and skills cost money. Other developed countries offer their poorest citizens more economic, social, healthcare, and educational support.

Because comparatively few poor Americans have access to those resources, and discover that things are not going to get better, more of them have a harder and harder time making ends meet, and, in the end more of them kill themselves.

Yet too many people in the U.S. cling to the myth that anyone can “make it” if they just work hard enough. It’s not true. What is true is that most people with a college education or high level technical skills can make it if they work really hard. The problem is that too many Americans don’t have access to that level of education and training, and, these days, many who do can only get such education by incurring incredible levels of debt.

The United States is no longer a frontier nation. We’re a developed nation, and we need to realize that in our social, business, and educational structures. If the unrest among minorities and the growing feminist stridency don’t get your attention, then perhaps the suicide numbers alone should tell us that.

12 thoughts on “Changing Times”

  1. Darcherd says:

    While I don’t dispute much of what you’re saying, there were still plenty of upward mobility opportunities in the U.S. long after the frontier officially closed in the 1890’s, including for the less educated. Certainly the growing inequality in America puts paid to the “anyone can make it with hard work” myth. But other countries such as Italy and Spain have much higher unemployment rates, particularly among younger people, than the U.S. without similar rates of suicide. The Economist in a recent article tended to blame the increasing suicide rate in the U.S. on both the ready access to guns (which tend to render suicide attempts more successful) and on the fact that suicide is still widely regarded as a character flaw, even cowardice, than a symptom of a treatable disease.

    1. I’d guess the large-scale devastation of the world wars in other developed nations extended the “frontier” effect. Both from wiping out a lot of the capacity of other nations, and providing us opportunities to help rebuild that capacity.

    2. Hanneke says:

      I too, though I agree with the rest of what mr. Modesitt said, wondered about the impact of the prevalence of guns on those high suicide statistics.
      Suicide attempts by firearm tend to be fatal, while suicide attempts by other means are much less likely to kill on the first attempt, and many of those who survive their first attempt will not try again.
      This means suicide attempts for those with easy access to guns, like the American men in the abovementioned statistics, are more likely to lead to higher numbers and percentsges of suicide deaths, when comparing to non-US suicide numbers for those categories.
      If they are being compared to other US categories with just as easy access to firearms that effect should be equal, so the excess deaths would not be attributable to the firearm access effect.

      1. You’re right. Studies show that the easy access to firearms does have an effect, but since over the time periods studied there was always comparative ease of obtaining firearms in the U.S., that access can’t explain the increase.

  2. Phil says:

    “Because comparatively fewer poor Americans have less access to those resources,”

    I think you may wish to revise this sentence, I think it should be ‘have access’.

    I found the statistics you quoted very disturbing!

    1. Thank you.

      Sentence changed.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    The lack of frontier argument can also be made for using sufficient enforcement to deter, repel, and deport illegals, few of which are college educated (or even necessarily high school and English-proficient), however hardworking many may be – and among whom encouraging their children to have aspirations to not only prosperity but also self-improvement beyond the status of their parents, is less likely than among e.g. stereotypical (at least) Asians.

    Schools in poorer districts may need to segregate (scary word, that) those willing to learn (of whatever color) from those determined to adhere to the self-destructive notion that learning would be submission; and civil authorities would need to come down hard on gangs and especially on adults who organize minors to commit lawbreaking (stealing, dealing). That might improve mobility, for those willing to pursue it. Let those determined to self-destruction live out their lives making big rocks into little ones or the like, at least unless they radically change their attitudes and objectives; but free the rest from their influence.

    I was in Dayton, OH, not too many months ago. Reports put it relatively low in livability among Ohio cities, with the implication that crime and marginal schools were major factors, if trending in the right direction; but it seemed a reasonably relaxed city to me (unlike Baltimore, D.C., or presumably Chicago!), merely in need of a bit of maintenance in places. My first thought was fix the potholes and the schools, and do more vigorous enforcement (if in a community-centric way), and that’s all they’d need to greatly improve livability; they have the rest of the trimmings in abundance for a city of their size: a diverse economy, higher education, fine arts, sports, etc. The difference in livability between Dayton and e.g. Pittsburgh would ultimately be a matter of encouraging a bit more constructive conduct…although I suppose that could be said, if in greater degree, of many places.

  4. Tom says:

    So ‘The Frontier Thesis’ is really of no help to us latter-day Americans and thus we suicide?

    Maybe the Great Trump is indeed making America Great again by re-enforcing the three characteristics which came out of the “American Frontier forest”, according to Jackson. The great frontier of societal upheaval.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Maybe Darwin is MAGA-ing, and Trump is just getting out of the way a tiny bit; not much, considering how many obstacles to the natural _de_selection of the unfit have been promulgated by government over the last 75 years; and yes, I think government – as contrasted to voluntary private charity where people should let their own money demonstrate their alleged values – should not provide a safety net except for those who were injured in the line of duty in the military or other public service…and if necessary, shoot the resultant rioters, and all other rioters for that matter.

      1. You seem to believe that being poor shows you are unfit. I suppose having bad luck means you are unfit, as well. Not fitting the definition of ‘worthy poor’, according to your local charities means you are unfit.

        Your knowledge of the theory of natural selection is a little off, as well.

  5. I think it would be more realistic to look at the numbers who move from one quintile to the next…it is REALLY unrealistic to expect to move from bottom to top in one generation.

    I think the economic boom times after WW2 had a greater effect on expectations. People (especially white men…have to throw that in to be PC) made great strides in income. Everyone expected that to be the new norm.

    Expectations need to change. I have seen teenagers who expected to get a job and buy a house just like their childhood home (the one where it took their parents twenty years to save the down payment). A teen who was going to become a doctor and buy a Lexus. A college dropout who was going to make $100 000 selling time shares. When their expectations are not met, whether teenagers or older men, society has taught them to judge themselves as failures.

  6. Tom says:

    It is difficult to succeed and not suicide, especially if one has to depend solely on one’s ego.

    FAIL -is first attempt at learning.
    END – but effort never dies.
    NO – look for the next opportunity.

    From my son’s grandmother-in-law!

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