Three Perennial American Social Problems That Only Worsen

We endlessly discuss loneliness, inequality, and addiction — how are we doing?

Posted Dec 29, 2018

Among the greatest social concerns we face in America are loneliness, inequality, and addiction. Not only are all our efforts to remedy them futile, but they are all growing worse.

I. Loneliness — Study after study reports that Americans are lonely — the standard figure they report is that half of us are lonely, meaning something between the feeling that we don’t have enough friends to not having a single person to share our feelings with.

And it isn’t older adult Americans who report the greatest loneliness, but the younger. In line with which, young people are having less sex (remember when the worry was they were having too much?), because they lack the skills and trust for intimate contact. 

Our primary response is to turn to social media, which ultimately exacerbates our loneliness, as defined by actual contact with people.

2. Inequality — One description of America is that we are on a unidirectional path to greater racial equality. Working against that idea is that on several vital measures, racial inequality hasn’t progressed at all in the last 50 years (since the Koerner Commission Report) — including residential and educational segregation. 

But the greatest indicator of racial inequality is the wealth difference in America, which Forbes describes as America’s “most pressing epidemic.” For every $100 of wealth in white households, black households have $5.

And the gap is expanding: “Between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700) . . . At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800.”

But we have recently become more conscious of the worst-off white Americans, in good part because they are Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. One way of conceptualizing the difference between white “haves” and “have-nots” is their relative investments in their children.

     In the highest income-inequality contexts, families whose incomes put them among the top 10 percent of earners spent more than four times what those in the bottom 25 percent spent on these things. Both income inequality and the gap in parental investments has been increasing over time. In 1980, parents in the top 10 percent spent about twice as much as those in the bottom 25 percent on these items. So, overall this gap has about doubled since 1980, but it grew more in the states that saw greater increases in income inequality.

And, let’s be clear, the purpose of this investment is to preserve racial and social class differences.

3. Addiction — Despite our greatest efforts, addiction hasn’t declined. We are most aware of this in terms of rising drug fatalities, which have occurred across the board (heroin, painkillers, cocaine, benzodiazepines, etc.). 

At the same time, we have become aware of the life-stultifying effects of addiction other than to drugs. The World Health Organization’s new classification of diseases (ICD-11) identifies compulsive sex and gaming as addictions, both of which grow out of social isolation and a lack of genuine intimacy (see point 1).

Meanwhile, although Americans focus on the universal dangers (that is, across classes) of opioids and other drugs, the worst drug outcomes are heavily weighted “in favor of” the poor and dispossessed: “deaths have grown increasingly more concentrated among those with lower levels of education, particularly among non-Hispanic whites.”

A study of drug fatalities in the state with by far the highest level of drug deaths, West Virginia, uncovered an overwhelmingly dominant portrait: 

     If you’re a male between the ages of 35 to 54, with less than a high school education, you’re single, and you’ve worked in a blue-collar industry, you pretty much are at a very, very high risk of overdosing.

So what do you think our chances are for reversing these pathological trends in American society in the coming years and decades?