The Growing Pain of the Working-Class

Many of the working poor are indeed suffering. The solution is mainly to reduce government regulations, to allow a robustly redundant labor market and more opportunities for free-agent entrepreneurship. (See Openness to Creative Destruction.)

(p. 6) Ever since Bobbie Wert was 8 years old, her stomach has ached. “My tummy hurts,” was her refrain as a girl, and the discomfort was accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea that kept her out of school — sometimes for half the days in the school year.

Doctors poked and scanned but couldn’t figure out anything wrong. Over the years, they cut her open and removed bits and pieces yet couldn’t drive away the pain. So doctors prescribed opioids in increasing doses — even fentanyl patches — that left her addicted. At age 43, she now is off opioids but still suffers every single day, enduring chronic pain like an estimated 50 million other Americans.

Wert is part of a vast and mysterious panorama of pain that is increasing, sometimes with no obvious physical cause. And while chronic pain is a global problem, it is particularly puzzling in America. In other wealthy countries, it’s the elderly who report the most chronic pain, which makes some sense. But in the United States it’s the middle-aged — especially the jobless and people like Wert, who did not graduate from high school — who suffer the most. It is a plague on the less educated.

All this raises the question: Is this physical suffering a canary in the coal mine warning us of larger dysfunction in our society?

Here’s what we do know: Tens of millions of Americans are suffering pain. But chronic pain is not just a result of car accidents and workplace injuries but is also linked to troubled childhoods, loneliness, job insecurity and a hundred other pressures on working families.

. . .

“People’s lives are coming apart, and this leads to huge increases in physical pain,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who with Anne Case popularized the term “deaths of despair.” He, Case and Arthur Stone warn in a recent article that “the mystery of American pain reveals a warning for the future.”

Americans die from deaths of despair — drugs, alcohol and suicide — at a rate of more than a quarter-million a year, and the number of walking wounded is far greater.

For the full commentary, see:

Nicholas Kristof. “Why So Many Americans Are Feeling More Pain.” The New York Times, SundayOpinion Section (Sunday, May 7, 2023): 6-7.

(Note: ellipsis added. In the original last paragraph, the words “want” and “all” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 3, 2023, and has the title “Why Americans Feel More Pain.”)

The book by Deaton and Case alluded to above is:

Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013.

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