Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

 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."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Scientists to BlackRock Vice Chairman: New Fossil Fuel Development 'Incompatible' With 1.5°C

"The only responsible course of action is to do everything in our power to stop fossil fuel expansion and further emissions."

Jessica Corbett ·


Goldman Prize Awarded to Activists Who Showed Nature's 'Amazing Capability to Regenerate'

"While the many challenges before us can feel daunting, and at times make us lose faith, these seven leaders give us a reason for hope and remind us what can be accomplished in the face of adversity."

Julia Conley ·


Faith Leaders Call for Federal Election Monitors in Georgia to Protect Black Voters

"It is imperative that our election this November is monitored to preserve ballot integrity and ensure ballot security."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Inaction Is Bought': Here Are the Receipts on NRA's Purchase of GOP

"The issue is money in politics," said Nina Turner after the nation's latest mass killing of students and teachers. Right-wing lawmakers are "allowing children to die because of the gun lobby."

Kenny Stancil ·


'This Is on You!' Beto Interrupts Abbott Press Conference on Texas Massacre

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke accused Texas' GOP leaders of "doing nothing and offering us nothing" in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary School.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo