The opioid epidemic hitting white rural communities is not just killing men, but killing women as well. New statistics show a major spike in the death rates of white women, particularly in the Midwest and among the lower middle class, people like Anna Marrie Jones of Tecumseh, Oklahoma.
Fifty-four years old. Raised on three rural acres. High school-educated. A mother of three. Loyal employee of Kmart, Walls Bargain Center and Dollar Store. These were the facts of her life as printed in the funeral program, and now they had also become clues in an American crisis with implications far beyond the burnt grass and red dirt of central Oklahoma.
White women between 25 and 55 have been dying at accelerating rates over the past decade, a spike in mortality not seen since the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. According to recent studies of death certificates, the trend is worse for women in the center of the United States, worse still in rural areas, and worst of all for those in the lower middle class. Drug and alcohol overdose rates for working-age white women have quadrupled. Suicides are up by as much as 50 percent.
What killed Jones was cirrhosis of the liver brought on by heavy drinking. The exact culprit was vodka, whatever brand was on sale, poured into a pint glass eight ounces at a time. But, as Anna’s family gathered at the gravesite for a final memorial, they wondered instead about the root causes, which were harder to diagnose and more difficult to solve.
“Life didn’t always break her way. She dealt with that sadness,” said Candy Payne, the funeral officiant. “She tried her best. She loved her family. But she dabbled in the drinking, and when things got tough the drinking made it harder.”
There were plots nearby marked for Jones’s friends and relatives who had died in the past decade at ages 46, 52 and 37. Jones had buried her fiance at 55. She had eulogized her best friend, dead at 50 from alcohol-induced cirrhosis.
Other parts of the adjacent land were intended for her children: Davey, 38, her oldest son and most loyal caretaker, who was making it through the day with some of his mother’s vodka; Maryann, 33, the middle daughter, who had hitched a ride to the service because she couldn’t afford a working car; and Tiffany, 31, who had two daughters of her own, a job at the discount grocery and enough accumulated stress to make her feel, “at least a decade or two older,” she said.
Candy, who in addition to being the officiant was also a close family friend, motioned for Tiffany and Maryann to bring over the container holding their mother’s cremated remains. They opened the lid and the ashes blew back into their dresses and out into the pasture.
“No more hurt. No more loneliness,” Candy said.
“No more suffering,” Tiffany said.
They shook out the last ashes and circled the grave as Candy bowed her head to pray.
“We don’t know why it came to this,” she said. “We trust You know the reasons. We trust You have the answers.”
The answers are that the economic conditions that have crushed a generation of black and Hispanic working class Americans, once confined to the inner cities, have now become commonplace across all of 2016 America. White, rural America is just now catching up in the misery department, accelerated by red state austerity and voting constantly against their own self-interests.
But now that it's affecting white women, well, now the austerity regime is maybe a problem in a country where the richest 1% now account for close to two-thirds of the total wealth. Hell, just the wealthiest twenty Americans alone now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country.
And that's just the money we know about.