A Good Economy Doesn’t Mean A Healthy America

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Conservative columnist for the New York Times David Brooks made a few observations this past week about how strong the U.S. economy is today with all the signs pointing to a nation that should be feeling pretty good about itself.

Yet something is missing. American’s aren’t feeling better; they’re feeling worse.

Gross domestic product, a measure of a nation’s economic strength, is growing at near 3.5 percent creating one of the best economies in many people’s lifetimes, he points out. Our economy has been on a steady upward climb since the crash of 2007-08 and is enjoying the second longest recovery on record.

While the rich have seen by far the largest benefit in personal wealth and security with the Trump tax cuts, all Americans are seeing an increase in wages in an economy where unemployment is near a record low. All the economy’s obvious signs point to a nation whose citizens should be feeling upbeat, secure and optimistic.

 “And yet here we are - a straight-up social catastrophe,” Brooks writes. How does he reach such a startling conclusion?

In late November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study showing that life expectancy in the United States dropped for the third consecutive year. “The nation is in the longest period of a generally declining life expectancy since the late 1910s, when World War I and the worst flu pandemic in modern history combined to kill nearly 1 million Americans,” the Associated Press reported on the CDC findings.

 “Financial struggles, a widening income gap and divisive politics are all casting a pall over many Americans,” Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, told the AP. “I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless, and that that leads to drug use, it leads potentially to suicide,” he said.

America set a modern day record for the number of suicides in a year when it recorded more than 47,000 in 2017, up from 45,000 in 2016. Brooks also looked back to the 2017 Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index report.

“Nearly half of U.S. states saw their well-being scores decline by a statistically significant margin in 2017,” Gallup’s Dan Witters writes. “And, for the first time in nine years of tracking changes in state well-being, no state saw statistically significant improvement from the year before.” Such a steep drop involving so many states hasn’t happened before in the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being survey. The index for the nation as whole also saw its single largest drop since it was started.

The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index is based on what it calls five essential elements of well-being:

Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.

Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life

Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.

Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community.

Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily.

It is not surprising that in light of today’s supposed booming economy that the reasons for the drop in the index’s measure of America well-being weren’t tied to income. Further, the indicators that kept showing up as reasons for a loss of a sense of well-being were similar across all states that saw declines. Those indicators were, Witters writes:

- An increase in experiencing significant worry on any given day.

- A sharp uptick in reporting “little interest or pleasure in doing things.”

- An increase in clinical diagnoses of depression.

- Elevated reports of daily physical pain.

- A decline in reports of receiving “positive energy” from friends and family members.

- A decline in having “someone who encourages you to be healthy.”

- A drop in reports of liking “what you do each day.”

- A decrease in those who have a leader in their life who makes them “enthusiastic about the future.”

- A decline in the percentage who report that they are reaching their goals.

- A reduction in satisfaction with standard of living (compared to peers.)

“Economic anxiety is now downstream from and merged with sociological, psychological and spiritual decay,” Brooks writes of the CDC and Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index findings. “The way I see it is this: It’s nonsense to have an economic policy - or any policy - that doesn’t account for and address the social catastrophe happening all around us. Every single other issue exists under the shadow of this one.”

Brooks sees an erosion of the moral fabric of America and how disconnected we are becoming from one another at the heart of the crisis today.

“People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades,” Brooks writes. “In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.”

That lack of resources means young people grow up today lacking the direction they need to stick through tough times in school and learning skills. They lack the “leadership, communication and collaboration” soft skills employers are looking for in the people they hire.

Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals are going to have to readjust their approaches to policymaking if the developing crisis is to be addressed. The focus has to go toward “how economic levers can have moral, communal and sociological effects” on society, Brooks writes.

Again, we see an opportunity in this crisis in the more connected way of life a small town offers its people.

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