The Forgotten Man

In 2015, the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s groundbreaking paper reported that mortality was only rising in a certain group of Americans: middle-aged Whites. It paints a grim picture of an America that consists of families who were previously able to get by with jobs not requiring college degrees. The disappearance of those jobs has been accompanied by an alarming rate of suicides, overdoses, and diseases caused by drugs and alcohol. Case and Deaton call these “deaths of despair” and argue they have recently reached disturbing levels. They also claim that the recent decline in incomes does not completely explain this rise only among Whites and that they also face a cumulative disadvantage over the course of their lives.

The Forgotten Man painted, in 2010, by the Utah-based artist Jon McNaughton. With the White House in a crepuscular background, its flag at half-staff, all forty-four U.S. Presidents are gathered behind and to the sides of a hunky, hangdog young white guy, who sits on a park bench. He is, in the artist’s words, “distraught and hopeless as he contemplates his future.” The ground is littered with dollar bills, a reference to excessive government spending. Most of the former chief executives look on blandly, but some heroes among them, mainly Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan, react with evident concern for the young guy and with dismay toward Obama, while a few villains, notably F.D.R. and Bill Clinton, applaud.

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