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 A man walks away from a food pantry operated by the American Rescue Workers in the struggling city of Williamsport, which has recently seen an epidemic of opioid use among its population. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Fueled by Broken Social Contract, Study Finds Inequality and Despair Driving US Life Expectancy Down

While the U.S. is still extremely rich nation, "its wealth is not inclusive" and "the 'American dream' is increasingly out of reach"

Julia Conley

A new report finds that a lack of social services including universal healthcare, public health crises, and declining social mobility have all contributed to growing despair and failing health in the United States, resulting in a decrease in life expectancy for the second year in a row.

According to the study, completed by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Urban Institute, a suicide rate that went up 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, and abuse of drugs and alcohol have contributed largely to the decline.

"We are seeing an alarming increase in deaths from substance abuse and despair," Steven Woolf, a co-author of the report, told USA Today.

The study shows one of the richest countries in the world falling behind other industrialized nations in terms of health and life expectancy, even as officials continue to further the narrative of the U.S. as "exceptional."

"Recent legislation and regulations may prolong or intensify the economic burden on the middle class and weaken access to healthcare and safety net programs."—Steven Woolf and Laudan Aron, "Failing Health of the United States"With average American life expectancy at 78.6 years in 2016—down .1 years from the year before—Americans are expected to live 1.5 fewer years than people in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, including the U.K., Canada, France, and 31 others.

In 1960, the U.S. had the highest life expectancy on Earth, 2.4 times higher than the rest of the OECD.

"It may not sound like much, but the alarming story is not the amount of the decrease but that the increase has ended," said Woolf.

While the U.S. is still as rich or richer than other wealthy countries, the study notes, "its wealth is not inclusive. Its social contract is weaker than in other countries—those in need have less access to social services, healthcare, or the prevention and treatment of mental illness and addiction. The 'American dream' is increasingly out of reach, as social mobility declines and fewer children face a better future than their parents."

The report is critical of U.S. lawmakers' refusal to take concrete steps to increase the overall health of Americans, by investing in the struggling communities where well-being and life expectancy have taken an especially sharp plunge as the opioid epidemic, stagnant wages, and poverty take hold of rural areas—instead passing legislation that will enrich the wealthiest Americans, like the Republican tax proposal that became law in December.

"In theory, policy makers jolted by the shortening lifespan of Americans would hasten to correct these conditions," reads the study. "They would promote education, boost support for children and families, increase wages and economic opportunity for the working class, invest in distressed communities, and strengthen healthcare and behavioral health systems. But the pro-business policy agenda favored by elected officials rarely prioritizes these needs. On the contrary, recent legislation and regulations may prolong or intensify the economic burden on the middle class and weaken access to healthcare and safety net programs."


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