This blog post title might sound overdone, but America has a life expectancy crisis that was first documented in adults and has now spread to our children. In a stunning article in the New York Times (April 9, 2023), David Wallace-Wells tells us that, “firearms account for almost half of the increase. Homicide accounted for 6.9 percent of deaths among that group, defined as those 19 years old or younger, and suicide accounted for 6.8 percent, according to a January analysis published in JAMA Network Open.” Although this data doesn’t just support the short term narrative that non-college educated males are dying at a higher rate, the new data includes their deaths but also reveals the increasing deaths of our youngest children.
Earlier data on why the decrease in life expectancy data pick up on a thread of “work by Anne Case and the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, economists who, beginning in 2015, suggested that a broad social malady was visible in the growing mortality rates of non-college-educated white men in middle age” (The New York Times, April 9, 2023).
Increasing death data is always disturbing and worthy of our national attention. But it has also spooked some of most respected researchers: “Last week, the former Treasury secretary Larry Summers called the deepening life expectancy crisis, documented in recent surveys and studies, “the most disturbing set of data on America that I have encountered in a long time” and “especially scary remembering that demographics were the best early warning on the collapse of the U.S.S.R.” (The New York Times, April 9, 2023).
Our Kindergarten Children
The new data unfortunately documents a problem that is both old and new—old in its inequality causes, and new in its demographic focus—young children. “The horror is that, as Burn-Murdoch memorably put it, in the average American kindergarten at least one child can expect to be buried by his or her parents” (The New York Times, April 9, 2023). And the death rates are growing every year by approximately 10% and showing no signs of weakening. Sadly, the rates of death are not spread evenly across races, with black and Hispanic suffering much more dramatically than white children:
“The disparities are remarkable and striking, as well. Most of the increase in pediatric mortality was among males, with female deaths making only a small jump. Almost two-thirds of the victims of homicide were non-Hispanic Black youths 10 to 19, who had a homicide rate six times as high as that of Hispanic children and teenagers, and more than 20 times as high as that of white children and teenagers” (The New York Times, April 9, 2023).
There is an inequality here that mirrors our work in education—and is often called a tragic inequality that is not confined to K-12 schools but is embedded in our entire society, across the lower classes of the United States of America.
“In this way, the new data manages to invert and upend the deaths of despair story while only confirming the country’s longs-tanding patterns of tragic inequality. That narrative, focused on the self-destruction of older and less-educated white men, took hold in part because it pointed to an intuitive sense of national psychic malaise and postindustrial decline. But the familiar narratives about the country’s problems are proving more enduring: The country is a violent place and is getting more violent, and the footfall of that violence and social brutality is not felt equally, however much attention is paid to the travails of the “forgotten” working class. Probably we should be much more focused on protecting our young” (The New York Times, April 9, 2023).
The call here is to protect our young in schools. Simple, and yet very difficult to focus on, given what happened in Tennessee most recently, where a discussion about gun violence experienced by a Tennessee school turned into a political mess. What can we do? We must act to stop the catastrophic mortality of our children.