American optimism and deaths of despair

I always thought that optimism was a basic and unchanging part of the American national character.

My belief is shaken by the rise in “deaths of despair”—first among middle-aged (45-to 54) white Americans, more recently among prime working aged (25 to 44) Americans of all races.

“Deaths of despair” are suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease.  The rise is thought to be caused by the hopeless economic situation of many Americans and by the ready availability of addictive drugs.

But this can’t the whole story.   In earlier eras of American history, such as the 1890s, poverty was greater, inequality was more extreme and addictive drugs were more freely available than they are now.

Pioneer families struggling to survive in sod houses on the prairie, immigrants in ragged clothes getting off the boat on Ellis Island, let alone African-Americans and native Americans—they all were in more desperate situations than any American today.

The USA was in the midst of a depression, comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  There was no social safety net.   It was possible to starve to death in New York City or any major city in the Western world.  If you couldn’t pay a doctor bill, you relied on charity or, more commonly, did without.

Opiates were sold legally.  Opium dens were found in every major city.  Heroin was a patented brand-name drug sold legally by the Bayer company.   Drunkenness was a serious social problem.

But this was an era of hope, not despair.  Workers formed labor unions and fought armed company police.   Farmers started organized the Populist movement.   Middle-class reformers started the Progressive movement.   They enacted reforms and social changes from which we Americans still benefit.

I don’t know of any statistics on “deaths of despair” in that era.   For all I know, there may have been a lot.

What I know about that era is that things looked hopeless, but there were a critical mass of Americans who didn’t give up.   As bad as things look today, I can’t believe the present generation of Americans is ready to give up on life or give up on their country.

Note:  I added a couple of links and made some minor edits and additions a few hours after posting.

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One Response to “American optimism and deaths of despair”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I like your post especially for the unanswered questions you leave hanging: what fuelled the hope then, how has it dissipated today? Why now?

    An answer, or rather a surmise, comes suddenly into my head, based on what’s happening in England at present.

    But it’s too long for this comment, needs some elaborating. A new post over at my place I think. Thanks, Phil!


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