If we needed any clearer proof that white working-class men are in crisis, it’s in a recent study revealing heroin use in the U.S. quintupled from 2001 to 2013, with the greatest increase coming among low-income white men.
“In 2001 to 2002, whites and non-whites reported similar prevalence of heroin use,” says Silvia Martins, professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and lead author on the study. “However, in 2012–2013, increases in heroin and related disorders were particularly prominent among whites, leading to a significant race gap in lifetime heroin use by 2013.”
Increases were particularly large for poorer and less-educated individuals—the same people who have the least access to the educational and medical resources needed to treat to substance addiction, according to co-author Deborah Hasin, a professor of epidemiology in the Mailman School. The researchers refrain from offering an explanation for the findings, but the rise in opioid use among white, working-class males is likely connected to their diminished socioeconomic standing.
Men tend to identify with their jobs to a degree that’s unhealthy, and often report feelings of aimlessness and inadequacy in retirement. And with blue-collar jobs disappearing, it seems that many men of that class are turning to drugs to fill the void.
The findings also seem to inform some of the most alarming aspects of our current political climate. The ongoing confluence of job loss, low marriage prospects and rapid social change has seemed to create an identity crisis for working-class white men — one that would explain the surge of hyper-conservative countermovements such as men’s rights, white nationalism and the alt-right, all of which are aimed, to varying degrees, at reclaiming a sense of white American male identity.
It also explains why Trump’s promise to put blue-collar America back to work resonated so well with voters. Let’s hope, then, that a job is a viable alternative to both heroin addiction and toxic, regressive social movements.