BY NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
Despite the information revolution, the Big Data explosion, and the advent of all-but-universal connectivity, American social policy is dogged by a huge knowledge gap. For years — sometimes decades — on end, acute social and economic troubles afflicting tens of millions of vulnerable Americans somehow manage to keep on hiding in plain sight. Consequently, America is subject to unexpected yet recurrent failures of the evidence-based policy-making upon which our modern welfare state prides itself. This troubling situation has far-reaching implications for the well-being of our countrymen and the health of our democracy — none of them positive.
Consider the saga of “deaths of despair” in modern America. In the late 1990s, America’s white working class was suddenly seized by a terrible health crisis. Among non-Hispanic white men and women of working age with no more than a high-school education, death rates commenced a gruesome rise. Between 1999 and 2015, mortality rates for these less educated Anglos jumped in every age group between 25 and 64 — and the spikes were practically Soviet in magnitude and nature. For men and women in their late fifties, death rates ratcheted up by 22 percent; they leapt by almost 90 percent for those in their early thirties. Across all these age groups, increased death rates from drug overdoses (“poisonings”), cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide contributed substantially to the carnage.
Working-class whites may constitute a minority of all Americans, but they are by no means a small population. In 2015, over 34 million Anglos between the ages of 25 and 64 had no more than twelve years of schooling. By itself, this contingent accounted for nearly one in nine Americans overall and more than one in five Americans in these working ages. And since these same men and women for the most part lived in families, a great many more Americans were part of a home that included these at-risk individuals — including the many millions of children to whom they were mothers, fathers, and providers.
The impact of the health crisis was nationwide, and its toll was horrendous. Between 1999 and 2015, excess mortality from rising death rates cost white working-class America hundreds of thousands of lives. Indeed, rough calculations suggest that this crisis may have exacted a cumulative total of over a third of a million premature deaths during that period alone (and it has continued since then). Yet the crisis went overlooked and undetected, year after year.
No one noticed the calamity on Clinton’s or Dubya’s watch. The continuing tragedy escaped attention throughout Obama’s first term. When the alarm was finally raised, late in Obama’s second term, it was sounded not by public-health officials, medical professionals, or for that matter anyone from America’s vast health sector. Instead the cry went up from a husband–wife economist team, Princeton’s Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who pinpointed the health disaster that had eluded the Department of Health and Human Services, Big Pharma, and all the country’s schools of public health for a decade and a half.
How could American health authorities completely miss a domestic epidemic of such severity and duration? Even during the Cold War, remember, U.S. researchers were quicker to spot the advent of the health crisis for the working-age population of the Soviet Union: and this during the heyday of Soviet disinformation and strategic deception, long before glasnost.
Whatever else may be said about this signal U.S. failure in disease prevention and control, it occasioned remarkably little reflection, self-criticism, and course correction on the part of America’s public-health apparatus. The “dying whites,” for their part, doubtless have drawn their own conclusions about why a highly educated elite that often publicly holds them in disdain might also have been so inattentive to the suffering and unnatural demise among their ranks.
Yet the incuriosity and lack of compassion that this episode revealed in our ameliorative state and its stewards are not reserved solely for the “deplorables.” Information-era social policy also devotes its inattention to troubled populations composed disproportionately of ethnic minorities. A key example concerns America’s invisible army of ex-felons.
In recent decades, an unprecedented number of men (and women) have been sentenced for major crimes. Many readers are of course aware that a globally exceptional fraction of America’s adults is behind bars — this is our oft-decried phenomenon of “mass incarceration.” But America’s prisons and jails are just the tip of the iceberg in our immense population of convicts and ex-cons. In 2017, a team of university demographers estimated that as many as 19 million Americans had a felony in their background as of 2010. According to that study, as of 2010, one in eight adult American men had been convicted of a felony. Among black American men, the ratio was one in three nationwide and even higher in some states. By this reckoning, for example, in 2010 some 40 percent of California’s black adults — men plus women — were convicts or ex-cons.
Furthermore, America’s felon population has grown appreciably since 2010 — rough calculations suggest the total could be as high as 24 million today. And since just over 2 million Americans are now in prison or jail, this means that about ten times that many convicts and ex-cons — around 22 million — are not behind bars, living instead in the general population. The share of convicted felons in America’s civilian noninstitutional population — in its working-age manpower, among adult men, and among working-age black men as well — is surely higher today than back in 2010. Given current nationwide patterns of crime, arrest and conviction, that share would also look to be on track to increase for years, perhaps even decades, to come.
Yet the U.S. government still does not collect systematic information about our ex-con population. It does not even bother to estimate the size of this population — which is why we have to rely on estimates from independent academic demographers for those elementary numbers. We have absolutely no official data about living arrangements, work patterns, health problems, or welfare-dependency profiles for the likely 20-plus million people in our society who have been sentenced for serious crimes.
Our government’s apparent lack of interest in the circumstances of this still growing corps of modern-day outcasts augurs ill for them and for our national well-being. For the most part, our swelling pool of at-large ex-cons does not seem to have posed a menace to society. Over the past 30 years, despite something like a tripling in the number of convicted felons living among the general public, U.S. rates for both violent crimes and property crimes have dropped quite steadily, and indeed dramatically — by about half for the former, and by nearly three-fifths for the latter. (The year 2020 — with its “summer of hate” and its radicalized, politically abetted urban chaos — marks a pronounced aberration from this long-term trend.)
On the other hand, with tens of millions of ex-cons now forming part of the basic demographic landscape of our cities, towns, and rural areas, the need for “reentry” — for bringing those who have paid their debt to society back into our families, our workforce, and our civic life — is more pressing than ever before. Far too many of these men (and women) have been lost to a Bermuda Triangle of dysfunction within America’s borders, a dark space whose coordinates are demarcated by joblessness, dependence on disability and welfare programs, and addiction. But we cannot speak of this syndrome in more than generalities because we remain statistically blind to it. And since we lack the “evidence” prerequisite for “evidence-based policy,” the practical and moral challenge of guiding ex-offenders into more-productive participation in American life remains unaddressed by any national effort.
Ex-cons are never a popular constituency, so the politics of statistical neglect may provide an explanation, though hardly an excuse, for our welfare state’s unwillingness to learn more about their condition. Yet gaping holes also persist in social statistics needed for policies that enjoy widespread public (if not necessarily elite) support. One of the most striking of these concerns is the shambolic state of marriage and divorce statistics for America today.
The family is the basic unit of every society, and the family factor arguably exerts a uniquely powerful influence on social well-being, everywhere. If the health of the American family is a matter of national concern, as policy-makers across the political spectrum declare it to be, informed citizens and their representatives in government should know about trends and trajectories in marriage and divorce, and in detail. They should want accurate, up-to-date indicators of the odds of getting married and staying married for men and women, of all our varied backgrounds, across our nation.
Yet it is impossible to obtain this information for America today. We are almost alone among affluent Western democracies in this statistical shortcoming, too. Our government decided some time ago to stop spending the money to collect comprehensive marriage and divorce information from our nationwide vital-statistics system. As a result, we cannot even undertake the calculations that might tell us where in America warning lights about marital stability are flashing — or conversely, where promising signs are emerging that might merit further scrutiny.
This glaring lacuna in social-data collection cannot just be laid at the feet of an anonymous officialdom indifferent to the fate of the family. Republicans loudly proclaim themselves to be champions of “family values,” yet in the twelve years that Team Red has held the White House in our new century, the federal government has done nothing to repair those vital-statistics systems that could tell us so much about how marriage in America is actually faring.
It is strange that so many significant long-term social problems besetting large numbers of Americans seem all but beyond the detection powers of modern America’s social-policy complex. Yet enumerating even a few of these oversights reveals a recurrent theme: inability among those in charge of this enormous data-powered apparatus to see our country as it actually is nowadays.
Despite the amazing wealth boom since the Reagan years, for example, real net worth for the bottom half of U.S. households was actually lower just before COVID-19 than at the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades earlier. Educational-attainment progress has badly stalled, with Americans in their late twenties and early thirties getting on average about two and a half years less of schooling. Work rates for prime-age American men in 2019, at the peak of a business cycle, were no better than in early 1940 — at the tail end of the Great Depression.
How do problems this big, affecting so many Americans, stay off the policy radar screen in an open society on the cutting edge of the information explosion? The answer, unfortunately, is that the information explosion cannot advance social policy on its own: We have to harness it by asking the right questions and looking in the right places. Asking the right questions and looking in the right places turn out to be much harder when the would-be helpers lack understanding about those whose lot they mean to improve. With increasing “social distance” and growing ideological polarization, the highly educated elite that guides policy from both inside and outside government is badly out of touch with less well-off Americans — and perhaps increasingly so.
Many of America’s “little people” may see this as willful ignorance, born of want of sympathy and interest. Whether and to what extent that same lack of sympathy and interest accounts for our continuing social-policy oversights will remain a debatable proposition. But the “likes and understands people like me” problem is rife in America today — and has proved deeply subversive of trust in both private and public institutions. That confidence deficit is only worsened by a welfare state that repeatedly overlooks the social crises that it is empowered to address.
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.