Fast Takes | The Rural Deaths-of-Despair Myth Revisited — Again

A new study is being interpreted as saying deaths of despair contributed to Donald Trump’s election. That’s wrong, for (at least) four reasons. | The farm bill, which has big implications for lower-income Americans, plods on. | Is rural support for Trump waning?

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The “rural deaths of despair” myth is on the march again. This time, it’s a very questionable claim that “deaths of despair” might be responsible for Donald Trump’s election. 

“Deaths of despair” rises out of a 2015 study and subsequent research that documented a rise in death rates from causes like suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol-related diseases. 

The press has latched onto two statements that are erroneous but apparently much worth repeating: First, that such deaths are primarily a result of economic challenges. (They aren’t.) And, second, that the rate of such deaths is worse in rural areas than in urban ones. (It isn’t.) Bill Bishop summed all of this up nicely in a column earlier this year. 

The latest “deaths of despair” study links higher death rates in some U.S. counties to voter support for Donald Trump. A very modest correlative statement by researchers turned into headlines like the following: 

“’Deaths of despair’ in rural America helped Trump win presidency” CNBC. 

Wow. 

There are four things wrong with the interpretation that this study concludes that deaths of despair caused Trump to win the presidency. 

The first two errors are those cited above. 

One, economics has been overstated as a possible contributing factor to deaths of despair. Thus, rough economic times don’t necessarily lead to more such deaths. In fact, scholars say they can’t really track an economic link at all: “Taking all of the evidence together, we find it hard to sustain the income-based explanation” of an increase in deaths of despair, they write (it’s on page 24 of this paper). 

Two, the same authors say the press is getting it wrong by repeatedly claiming that rural areas have higher rates of deaths of despair than urban areas do. 

Three, without looking at the county-level data of the study, it’s impossible to connect the new study to rural America. The study does not use a standard definition of rural (there are many to choose from) that allows for easy comparison to other data about rural America. This is admittedly a wonkish criticism. But it relates to a much larger issues with serious political ramifications. 

And, four, the study’s actual finding on the vote and the death rate is extremely modest.

Here’s the deal: 

“In multivariable analyses, Republican net presidential gain in 2016 vs. 2008 was independently correlated with slower reductions in a county’s age-adjusted death rate. Although correlation cannot infer causality, modest reductions in death rates might theoretically have shifted Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to Secretary Clinton.” 

It’s an interesting assertion, and perhaps it gives us some new opportunities to talk about the connection between public health and politics. But it’s a long way from saying “deaths of despair” got Trump elected. 

*** 

Most of us, thank goodness, have better things to do than to keep up with President Trump’s poll numbers. There has been some discussion (among those with nothing better to do, we presume) about the president’s falling approval ratings. 

Two polls recently show Trump’s approval at 36 percent, those polls coming from ABC/Washington Post and from the Investors Business Daily. That number is down 5 points or so from the last poll. 

The IBD poll, however, shows a considerable drop in support for President Trump among rural residents. Trump’s numbers “among rural dwellers plunged 15 points — going from 60% to 45%,” reports the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin.  

Rubin suspects that drop is because of Trump’s trade policies. We have no idea, but think the numbers are worth reporting. (For the original story on the IBD poll, see this article by John Merline.) (Note: The poll defined “rural” based on the respondent’s self-identification.) 

*** 

If you’re a rural voter in Colorado, The Denver Post wants to know what you think. Follow the link, or click on this screenshot, to give them your ideas. (Photo source: Screenshot, The Denver Post)

You don’t know unless you ask, we guess. 

The Denver Post is asking. It would like to hear from rural residents of Colorado “on what matters to them and how they’d like to have the next governor address these issues.”  

If you want to let reporter Nic Garcia what you think, go to the link and tell him. 

*** 

In a small city in the “heartland,” voters in an upcoming election are divided on immigration issues. Support may be growing for candidates whose critics say they promote nativist populism.   

The “heartland,” in this case, is in southern Sweden. And the candidates are part of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. 

The BBC reports on how Sunday’s election could make the Sweden Democrats the second most popular party in the nation. The report describes the Sweden Democrats as “a nationalist party linked for years to neo-Nazis and other far-right groups.”  

The reporter travels to a “rural central Sweden” to report on the phenomenon, selecting the city of Örebro, which is about 100 miles west of Stockholm and as a population of about 118,000. The story says the party is “popular in rural areas” but doesn’t provide specifics. 

*** 

With the farm bill in conference committee, the New York Times reports that as many as 2 million low-income Americans could lose food stamp benefits if the House version of the bill is approved. The newspaper cites a study by Mathematica. 

About a third of senior citizens using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) would lose benefits. One in 10 people with disabilities now on SNAP would be taken off the rolls. Those numbers are in addition to the 1.2 people who could lose benefits if the House version’s work provisions are included in the nutrition program’s renewal. 

A Daily Yonder analysis showed that families in the districts of the House members who are on the conference committee received $9.3 billion in farm bill benefits (both nutrition and ag support). 

*** 

Politico reports that the conference-committee negotiations on the House and Senate versions of the farm bill could be a “slow-go.” 

The conference committee is appointed to work out a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. At least that’s how it’s supposed to function. 

Both Republican Senator Pat Roberts (Kansas), chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, and Democrat Deborah Stabenow (Michigan), ranking member of the committee, said the differences between the House and Senate version were still significant.  

The current farm bill expires September 30.  

 

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