The widening gap in death rates between Americans with and without a four-year college degree shows the U.S. economy is failing working class people, suggests a paper discussed at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA) conference on September 28.
The U.S. economy, as measured by conventional metrics such as growth in gross domestic product (GDP), has recently outperformed other advanced economies. But mortality data paint a different picture, according to “Accounting for the Widening Mortality Gap between American Adults with and without a BA.”
“GDP may be doing great, but people are dying in increasing numbers, especially less-educated people,” Anne Case, one of the authors, said in an interview with The Brookings Institution. “A lot of the increasing prosperity is going to the well-educated elites. It is not going to typical working people.”
She and co-author Angus Deaton, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, both of Princeton University, analyzed U.S. death certificate information, including the age of death, cause of death, and educational attainment. They found that life expectancy for the college educated in 2021 was eight-and-a-half years longer than for the two-thirds of American adults without a bachelor’s degree. That’s more than triple the 1992 gap of about two-and-a-half years.
Deaths of despair were the leading driver of the widening mortality gap over the past 30 years, but the gap also widened for most other major causes of death, the paper notes. Cancer mortality, for instance, has declined overall but it has declined more for people with college degrees.
The mortality gap widened explosively during the pandemic, according to the paper. Both COVID-19 deaths and deaths of despair were more common among people without college degrees, who were more likely to work in public-facing jobs, use public transportation, and live in crowded quarters.
“People with BAs have Zoom. People without BAs don’t have Zoom; they have to go to work,” Deaton said.