For a growing segment of the world’s population, economic inequality has become deadly. That was the message of Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and University College London epidemiologist Michael Marmot at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health colloquium “Nations at Risk: The Changing Distributions of Population Health” on Friday.
The event was co-sponsored by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and Harvard Chan School’s PhD in Population Health Sciences program.
Following introductory remarks by Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle Williams, the first hour of discussion outlined the extent of the problem. Deaton, a professor emeritus at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2015, pinpointed a rise in “deaths of despair” — his term for preventable death by suicide, alcoholism-related liver disease, or addiction. All three are rising among uneducated white males in the U.S. This points to a larger crisis, Deaton said: “American capitalism is simply not working for the working class anymore.”
There are two Americas, he added, and the great dividing line appears to be a college education. Deaton cited numerous studies showing the effects of the education gap: “Deaths of despair” account for 50 of 100,000 deaths in white males with a bachelor’s degree, but 200 per 100,000 in those without. Meanwhile, median wages have risen for college grads, but dropped for those without degrees.
“I am not suggesting that everybody get a B.A., but this divide comes up over and over again,” he said.
Deaton said the divide is no accident, and cited policy decisions and a range of related factors, including the decline of the labor movement and the measures multinational corporations have pushed to undermine it — notably, company-favoring arbitration and noncompete clauses.