Opinion » Note

'Crisis of Confidence'


President Jimmy Carter caught a lot of hell for his July 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech, in which he described a "fundamental threat to American democracy" as "a crisis of confidence."

"We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America."

Contrary to the memory of some, immediate public reaction to the so-called "Malaise Speech"—though Carter never used the word—was overwhelmingly positive. Many Americans saw the president's diagnosis as a call to action to fix issues such as income inequality, rampant consumerism, and economic and energy instability, but politics got in the way of progress.

More than 35 years later, the text of Carter's speech feels eerily contemporary. According to a recent study published by a pair of Princeton economists, white middle-aged Americans—who probably remember Carter's presidency—are experiencing a new crisis of confidence, with deadly consequences.

From 1999 to 2013, the morbidity and mortality rates for the white, 45-54-year-old demographic have risen sharply, attributed to suicide, poisoning and alcohol-related liver diseases.

The study authors—one of them a Nobel Prize winner in economics—don't mince words about the underlying causes: "Many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents."

This dynamic is nothing new to people of color or those born to low-income families, but the suggestion that economic factors like low wages, lack of education and access to health care have killed an estimated 500,000 white Americans over 14 years has grabbed headlines around the country.

Looking at the trends explored in the Princeton study, the crisis confronting white middle-aged Americans could serve as shorthand for the major policy challenges facing Idaho. In this week's edition, Boise Weekly talks with a handful of experts about how this "crisis of confidence" is playing out in the Gem State. Find our report here.