Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Business

PolitiFact: Fact-checking death rates for working-class America

The statement

"(For) white working-class America, death rates among white men are up 20 percent."

Alex Castellanos, Aug. 20 on ABC's This Week

The ruling

Castellanos sent us articles from the New York Times and the Guardian about a 2015 paper by husband-and-wife Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case. Their research showed that death rates for middle-aged, white Americans had been going up, while they had been going down for every other age, race and ethnic group. Those rates also had been falling in other countries.

This was a reversal of a years-long trend in which mortality rates had been steadily decreasing, meaning that Americans across many groups were living longer. From 1978 to 1998, white Americans were seeing mortality rates fall about 2 percent each year. So the fact that Case and Deaton found an increase was considered significant.

But Deaton told us the 20 percent number Castellanos cited for men was too high. (That's a number the Guardian reported, but it cites the increase as being for "the death rate for white Americans aged 45 to 54.")

"In our 2015 PNAS paper, we say that for all white non-Hispanics (men and women together), mortality rates for those aged 45 to 54 rose at half of one percent per year, which from 1998 to 2013 is 7.8 percent, not 20 percent, and certainly not 20 percent for men only," Deaton wrote via email. Case added that that was for all levels of education, not just people who didn't have a college degree.

Deaton and Case's study showed that mortality rates were climbing for white, non-Hispanic Americans aged 45 to 54 with a high school education or less. The research further showed that deaths were up from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicides, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. Mortality rates rose for all education groups, but "those with less education saw the most marked increases," the paper read.

It's important to note that overall mortality rates for African-Americans were still higher than whites. But African-Americans still recorded an overall drop in the same time period, not an increase.

Researchers were surprised by the Case and Deaton study in 2015. Others questioned the paper's results. Columbia University statistics professor Andrew Gelman said that some statistical adjustments showed that middle-aged white women largely made up the difference in mortality rates, and the figures evened out when you combined men and women.

Deaton and Case addressed some of these doubts in a 2017 followup to their paper. While the 2015 data didn't focus on differences between men and women, their latest work did, along with adjusting their age groups.

"For non-Hispanic white men aged 30 to 59 without a four-year college degree, age-adjusted all-cause mortality rose by 7 percent from 1998 to 2015," Deaton said of the latest data.

Again they found that a lack of education was a major factor for increasing mortality rates, among other issues.

"We propose a preliminary but plausible story in which cumulative disadvantage from one birth cohort to the next, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health, is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education," the 2017 paper read.

Deaton said Castellanos was speaking too broadly, and the spirit of his comment misses what the research really says.

"To be fair, that mortality rates are going up at all is a big deal, and is a measure of the fact that bad things are happening to these people," he said.

So Castellanos has a point about increased death rates among whites, but he incorrectly cited figures from the study. We rate his statement Mostly False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PunditFact.com.

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