Back to school! Also, the shrinking life expectancy of poor, white women.

ElvgrenteacherSorry for the radio silence–we’re back to school and I’m up to my skirt in it already.  If you’re looking for something to read over the lunch hour, go read Monica Potts’s sympathetic, sad exploration of the life and death of Crystal Wilson in “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” in The American Prospect.

Wilson isn’t anyone you’ve probably ever heard of, but Potts makes her obscure life and death in Cave City, Arkansas, a fascinating case study. The author aruges that the death of opportunity in rural America has hit girls and women without high school degrees especially hard.  It also implies towards the end that feminism is at least part of the cure.  In the words of the technology coordinator for the Cave City schools Julie Johnson,

 “You don’t even hear about women’s lib, because that’s come and gone. But you hear about glass ceilings, and I think girls, most especially girls, have to be taught that just because they’re girls doesn’t mean they can’t do something. That they are just as smart, that they are just as valuable as males. And we have to teach boys that girls can be that way, too. They all need the love, nurturing, and support from somebody from their family or who’s not their family. Somebody who’s willing to step up. There has to be something to inspire kids to want more, to want better. And they have to realize that they’re going to have to work hard to get it. I don’t know how you do that.

“It’s just horrible, you know? I don’t know if ‘horrible’ is the right word.” Julie puts her face into her hands. “The desperation of the times. I don’t know anything about anything, but that’s what kills them.”

Interestingly, it’s only the lifespans of white women without high school diplomas that have shortened, as their African American counterparts are outliving them.  Social conservatives have long argued that marriage alone works as a magic force-field against poverty, but Potts suggests that marriage itself may be what’s killing white Southern women:

Something less tangible, it seems, is shaping the lives of white women in the South, beyond what science can measure. Surely these forces weigh on black women, too, but perhaps they are more likely to have stronger networks of other women. Perhaps after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, black women are more likely to feel like they’re on an upward trajectory. Perhaps they have more control relative to the men in their communities. In low-income white communities of the South, it is still women who are responsible for the home and for raising children, but increasingly they are also raising their husbands. A husband is a burden and an occasional heartache rather than a helpmate, but one women are told they cannot do without. More and more, data show that poor women are working the hardest and earning the most in their families but can’t take the credit for being the breadwinners. Women do the emotional work for their families, while men reap the most benefits from marriage. The rural South is a place that often wants to remain unchanged from the 1950s and 1960s, and its women are now dying as if they lived in that era, too.

13 thoughts on “Back to school! Also, the shrinking life expectancy of poor, white women.

  1. No hard or even soft data, but I could see some version of this pattern emerging in this rural but decidedly non-southern part of the country where I am now. It would be interesting to see what sub-patterns in the data may contribute to even tentative explanations: rise in suicide rates? injury or death at the hands of family members? increased exposure to things like highway hazards as a result of increased share of familial transportation responsibilities? disproportionate exposure to idiosyncratic things such as the violent methamphetamine crisis sweeping parts of the rural American midland? An interesting piece.


  2. Husbands and men that need to grow up seem to be commonplace. I am not sure most of them ever will. That true for high school graduates as well as men holding post graduate degrees from the best schools in the land.

    Pott’s article/essay ring true to me. These women don’t have support of any kind, which leaves them to fend for themselves. No one does well stripped of tools, community support and clear goals.


  3. Some of the comments suggest PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) as a possible cause of death for Crystal, the person being profiled, but the larger and starker issue is in one sentence: she did not qualify for Medicaid and had no health care. We need to start viewing poverty not just as a social issue but as a public health problem that needs to be addressed with good policies–and money.


  4. What struck me in the comments on the article was how many wanted to explain (or in some cases explain away) this one death.but what struck me was how many things were going on – lack of Health care, few jobs, isolation.

    And just sad.


  5. Yeah, the jerks who wanted to argue that there was no such thing as patriarchy in the South in the 1950s and 1960s were pretty funny. Also the fat-shaming comments. (I was actually surprised that it took 10 comments for someone to write, “she was FAT!!! that’s why she died so young!”)


  6. The Prospect article claims:

    “Black women without a high-school diploma are now outliving their white counterparts.”

    But the actual study data says that black and white women with less than 12 years of school have life expectancy only a few months apart at most ages, and the researchers don’t indicate that it’s a statistically significant difference overall.

    Eyeballing this chart, the difference doesn’t seem too noticeable:

    It’s a very odd/thin “fact” for the author to seize upon, kicking off a whole section of conjecture about how black women might be feeling like their lives are getting awesomer. Especially given the deepening racial economic inequality gap in this country, especially post-crash.

    Further, the study says,
    “The current life expectancy at birth for US blacks with fewer than twelve years of education is equivalent to the life expectancy observed in the 1960s and 1970s for all people in the United States, but blacks’ longevity has been improving with time.”

    So, if she wants to discuss how poor white women are stuck in pre-second-wave America (legit), it seems as though she should also discuss how black women **of any economic class** are stuck there right along with them.

    Unless having a lot of American Prospect readers ascribe a lot of “optimism” about their super-better lives helps all the magical mystical sage-filled black women matriarchy networks out there overlook the fact that no matter how much they achieve, they’re dying like it’s the 60s.


  7. Unless I misunderstand what you mean, curmudgeon, I think maybe you misunderstood the chart.

    Black women without a high school degree had comparatively short life expectancies in the past but they have been slowly rising. Not fast enough, the discrepancy is sad and shameful, but the point the epidemiologists are making is that they follow the usual trend. There’s an unpaywalled pdf here

    What the article calls attention to is the steep drop in life expectancy for white women without high school degrees. That is not matched in the equivalent black demographic. It’s not even close. (What’s close is the current life expectancies, because the black women have been slowly gaining, whereas the white ones have lost some six years.)

    Further, the authors make the point that it’s the kind of drop only seen during some level of social collapse.

    The poor, uneducated, female, unhealthy just have an intersection of vulnerabilities. They’re vulnerable like the canaries were in the coal mines. I see the take home message as: if we don’t pay attention to the society crumbling at the edges, we’re next.

    The lack of medical care has got to be a huge factor. That lack is bigger these last 20 years with the loss of welfare, and the cuts to Medicaid.

    I thought this part of the Prospect article was interesting: “Whether the women had a job mattered, and it mattered more than income or other signs of financial stability, like homeownership. In fact, smoking and employment were the only two factors of any significance.” She goes on to mention all the theories why that might be so, unemployed are unhealthier to start with, social interaction at work, sense of purpose. And never once mentions the possibility that at least some workers get some level of health insurance.

    My guess is that would be enough to affect the statistics. Even if only 20% of the workers got meaningful health insurance, which is not impossible at the big factory employers, insurance where you could at least get medication for your diabetes, that’d be a lot of women with longer life spans.


  8. No, I’m pretty sure I understood, quixote (though I did, in my irritation, go overboard by saying black women of any economic class are trapped in the past – obviously although white women outpace them in longevity, educated black women do pull ahead some).

    I appreciate your attempt to help me, but also read the underlying article you linked to prior to making my first comment…which is how I knew that black and white women <12yrs ed had virtually the SAME life expectancies in the first place, as this was most certainly NOT mentioned in the Prospect article paragraph about white women being trapped in the past. In fact, the article's claim that black women with the least education were "outliving" white women was so surprising to me that it spurred me to find the actual data. And what I found was not the type of information that should have been there to support Potts' paragraph speculating about how white women are dying young because they are the primary breadwinners and raising their male partners, but that the black women (who by the way are doing these very same things) are happier and healthier about it, because, black matriarchy and they don't know any different.

    I get that the trajectories are different. But the realities are the same.

    (And only for that education demographic.)

    I suspect that "poor white women have fallen so far that they're becoming like poor black women" isn't as genteel of an image for Potts (herself a white woman from Arkansas) as isolated frustrated white 60s housewives vacuuming in heels while pondering The Problem That Has No Name.

    I understand and agree with the canary in the coal mine analogy. I largely enjoyed the Prospect article and I think it is critical to discuss what is going on with poor people in America.

    However, there is a passage in it that needlessly and on no evidence throws some women under the bus, minimizing their problems and improperly painting them as thriving, when the fact is that they are dying like white women.


  9. Thanks for the link, Historiann. Yes, that is an interesting limitation of the data: if the population of white female non-HS grads shrinks by half, it can be expected to include only higher need/more at-risk women.

    I wonder whether the population of black female non-HS grads was also halved.


  10. “I wonder whether the population of black female non-HS grads was also halved.”

    I understand Echidne’s point about ruling out the cohort effect but am doubtful about its explanatory power in this case because it doesn’t gel with regional and race differences. How likely is it that the reduction in the population of non-HS grads is specific to white women in (mostly) republican counties?


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