White Lives in Deadly Despair

News: US News
by Kristine Christlieb  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 26, 2023   

New research highlights importance of faith

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - New research is offering answers for the rising number of so-called deaths of despair.

Tyler Giles, Daniel M. Hungerman and Tamar Oostrom

Three economists — Tyler Giles, Daniel M. Hungerman and Tamar Oostrom — are saying participation in a faith community may be the way to halt the growing number of American deaths from drug overdose, suicide and alcohol abuse. 

In a working paper titled "Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion," published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers claim deaths of despair began to increase earlier than previously acknowledged and that "this increase was preceded by a decline in religious participation, and that both trends were driven by middle-aged white Americans."

Three key points are new to the literature on these tragic deaths: The trend began earlier than once thought, religious practice is a significant factor, and both White men and White women are impacted.

The study postulates the decline in religious participation is also tied to the repeal of so-called blue laws that restricted the sale of certain goods on Sundays.

The economists report that earlier studies only consider statistics after 1999, but they believe looking back to the early 1990s makes more sense. Their research notes the sharp and widespread decline in religious adherence in the late 1980s. The deaths of despair followed and began trending unnoticed in the early 1990s.

Researchers claim deaths of despair began to increase earlier than previously acknowledged.

The group hit hardest by these two trends are White men and women aged 45–64 who do not have college degrees. 

The researchers note, "We know of no other cultural phenomenon involving such large, widespread changes in participation prior to the initial rise in US mortality, nor do we know of any other phenomenon that matches the seemingly idiosyncratic patterns observed for mortality: seen for both men and women, but not in other countries, and in both rural and urban settings, but driven primarily by middle-aged, less educated white individuals."

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It has been widely reported deaths of despair have occurred primarily in certain geographic areas. For example, a 2019 article in the Journal of Appalachian Health claims "Appalachia is disproportionately represented in mortality rates … attributed to the 'deaths of despair.'" 

But the economists' research disputes this claim, noting that in other regions, "states that experienced larger declines in religious participation in the last 15 years of the century saw larger increases in deaths of despair." The connection between religious adherence and well-being, they said, is well documented.

The research focus on religiosity is about participation rather than belief. The findings center on participation in a religious community, i.e., worship attendance, not just private belief and practice, such as prayer. Individuals with higher participation in a faith community had greater immunity to diseases of despair. 

The reasons White men and women are more likely than members of other races to stop attending places of worship are not addressed in the study.

The repeal of blue laws actually precipitated the decline in church attendance.

Since the researchers are all economists, it is perhaps not surprising that part of their investigation focuses on commerce. They argue, "Upon the repeal of blue laws, there was an increase in the opportunity cost of attending religious services on Sunday, the common day of worship for many in the United States."

According to their study, the repeal of blue laws actually precipitated the decline in church attendance. The researchers note, "The largest repeal of blue laws occurred in 1985 when Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas all repealed their laws." Their research showed "the blue law repeals led to both an increase in measures of low religiosity and a decline in measures of high religiosity."

The investigators conclude their paper by pointing to "the importance of formal religious participation for adherents" because it "often creates positive external benefits."

Given these findings, Catholics have the great advantage of being able to gather daily for Mass with other believers .

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