The geography of desperation in America: Labor force participation, mobility, place, and well-being

Soc Sci Med. 2021 Feb;270:113612. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113612. Epub 2020 Dec 15.


There are deep divisions between Americans with opportunities and hope for the future and those left behind. We explored this earlier using metrics of reported well-being and found deep desperation - and an association with premature death - among less than college educated whites. This contrasts with more hope for the future among Black and Hispanics, despite worse objective conditions. Here we extend these findings and focus on workers out of the labor force (OLF), their low well-being, and their lack of geographic mobility. The well-being of this group varies substantially across age, gender, and race. We find that those in prime age fare worse than other age groups; within prime age respondents, women report higher well-being than men, and among prime age males, whites report significantly lower well-being, worse health, and higher pain than minorities. Prime age OLF respondents - especially white males - report worse health than those in other labor market categories, suggesting that their dropout is partly due to bad health. Individuals in counties with a higher percentage of respondents still in their childhood census tracts have poorer health and little hope. Those in counties with higher percentages of adults in their parents' homes have even worse well-being and health. The state of these cohorts - and their tendency to stay in the places they grew up rather than move - is one potential explanation for the declining levels of geographic mobility in the U.S.

Keywords: Desperation; Geography; Population cohorts; Public health; Subjective well-being.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Americas
  • Child
  • Employment*
  • Female
  • Geography
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Social Class*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States
  • Urban Population