by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
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. …
… 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.