While You Counted Your Blessings, Social Scientists Toted Up Your Woes

Into each life, it’s said, a little rain must fall. Not content with such meteorological vagueness, the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has quantified people’s miseries in a study released last month under the the cheery title “Troubles in America: A Study of Negative Life Events Across Time and Sub-groups.” Analyzing data collected in 2004, it finds a rise in such events since 1991, when the survey was last conducted.

Health difficulties were the most common such occurrences. Indeed, of the 66 problems tracked by the study, only one—”ill enough to go to a doctor”—befell a majority of adults during the year before they were interviewed (56.2 percent, vs. 54.4 percent in 1991). Excluding maternity cases, 17.2 percent had a spell as a patient in a hospital or other medical facility in that period (vs. 14.1 percent in 1991). The number using illegal drugs nearly doubled, from 2.9 percent to 5.7 percent. Death surely qualifies as a negative event, even for those who experience it secondhand. While few adults endured the death of a parent (3.1 percent), a spouse (0.9 percent) or a child (0.5 percent) during the pre-interview year, 22 percent had a “close friend” die.

On the economic front, just 1.2 percent of adults said they went bankrupt during the year prior to being surveyed. However, 15.8 percent reported “being pressured to pay bills by stores, creditors or bill collectors”; 13.1 percent saw “a major worsening” of their finances. Few were evicted from a home (0.9 percent), although 7.3 percent said they’d fallen behind in their rent or mortgage payments. At work, 5.5 percent of adults were fired or permanently laid off; 4.3 percent had “serious trouble” with their boss.

Some changes since 1991 are unsurprising—for instance, the rise in the number of adults who lacked all health coverage (from 11.8 percent to 17.9 percent). Other shifts defy easy explanation. Among these is a steep rise in the number of unmarried people who broke up with a significant other (from 4.4 percent to 8.3 percent). Likewise, there was an increase in the number who reported “having serious trouble with a close friend” (from 4.8 percent to 6.3 percent).

While nearly everyone had a brush with at least one negative life event in the prior year, the brunt of such misfortunes fell quite unevenly. The study divided the population into tenths, from the least troubled to the most troubled. “In both 1991 and 2004, the least-troubled tenth had close to no negative life events. The least-troubled half of the population had only about 17 percent of all troubles, and the most-troubled decile had 32-33 percent of all troubles.”