Economics is sometimes called the
"dismal science," but sociologists are better at examining the human
side of economic hard times. What they've learned is that when the
economy is hurting, people are more likely to hurt -- and kill --
themselves and others.
Every day, week, and month that the current recession continues, and
even deepens, more people die, get seriously injured physically, and
suffer emotional hardships that can scar them for life.
When policymakers in Washington debate how to fix the economy, they
typically look at changes in figures like the unemployment rate, the
stock market index, and the gross domestic product. But there are other
statistics that show the economy's ugly underside -- the toll that
lay-offs, foreclosures and evictions, and dramatic drops in stock
prices take on our daily lives. For example, there's a direct
correlation between economic downturns and an increase in suicide and
suicide attempts, heart attacks, domestic violence, child abuse, and
Last week, economists at the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics
unveiled the dismal unemployment figures. In February alone, the BLS
announced, the economy shed 651,000 jobs, increasing the nation's
unemployment rate to 8.1%, the highest in a quarter century.
Most economists think that even if President Obama's stimulus plan
works wonders, the jobless rate will get worse -- to as high as 10% by
the end of the year -- before it gets better.
Officially, 12.5 million Americans are now out of work, compared
with 7.4 million a year ago. The number of long-term unemployed, those
out of work for at least 27 weeks, has swollen to 2.9 million, up from
1.3 million last year. But if you add "discouraged" workers (those who
are so frustrated that they have given up looking for work) and those
who work part-time but would prefer to work full-time, the jobless rate
jumps to 14.8% -- almost 23 million Americans.
No matter how you measure it, though, the economy has been sinking
rapidly, leaving many people without jobs, without hope, and, for a
growing number of Americans, without homes and health care. The severe
recession not only hurts the poor and the middle class, it also
emotionally devastates some wealthy Americans who have seen their net
worth sink dramatically, making it impossible to maintain their
For over 30 years, Dr. Harvey Brenner, a sociologist and public
health expert at Johns Hopkins University and the University of North
Texas Health Science Center, has been carefully studying the link
between economic fluctuations and the nation's physical and mental
health. Based on the experience of the last half century, he has even
estimated how many more deaths, suicides, heart attacks, homicides, and
admissions to mental hospitals we can expect when unemployment rises.
After crunching the numbers, Brenner calculated that for every one
percent increase in the unemployment rate (an additional 1.5 million
people out of work), we can expect an additional 47,000 deaths,
including 26,000 deaths from heart attacks, about 1,200 from suicide,
831 murders, and 635 deaths related to alcohol consumption. If, for
example, the unemployment rate jumps from 8.1% to 9.1%, we can expect
roughly an extra 1,200 people to commit suicide and another 831 people
to commit murder.
For most people, losing their job, their life savings or pensions,
or their home is traumatic, even when its through no fault of their
own. Our individualistic culture leads people to blame themselves and
to think of themselves as failures.
When the economy goes south, the hardships in people's lives get
translated into increased stress, anxiety, and frustration. A recent
national (ABC/Washington Post) poll found that 57 percent of Americans
say they're under personal stress as a result of the country's economic
crisis. One in four say they feel "serious" stress. Among Americans who
are not confident that they will have enough income and assets to last
through retirement, one-half say they suffer from "serious" stress.
Nearly half of Americans are worried about keeping up with their rent
or mortgage payments. Among this group, 79% report feeling stressed and
45% indicate that it's a "serious" stress.
According to Brenner's studies, recessions are accompanied by a
significant increase in admissions to mental hospitals. But many people
don't seek counseling, therapy or other forms of medical help when they
are under stress. In fact, Brenner says, lay-offs typically result in
people losing their health insurance, making it even harder to get the
help they need.
Other social scientists and mental health experts have documented a
spike in child abuse and domestic violence during economic downturns. A
2004 study by the National Institute of Justice found that the rate of
violence against women increases as male unemployment increases. When a
woman's male partner is employed, the rate of violence is 4.7%. It is
7.5% when the male partner experiences one period of unemployment. It
increases to 12.3% when the male experiences two or more periods of
Robberies and other crimes increase, too. "Every recession since the
late '50s has been associated with an increase in crime and, in
particular, property crime and robbery," Richard Rosenfeld, a
sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the New York Times last year. Typically, he said, "there is a year lag between the economic change and crime rates."
By now we're all too familiar with news stories about people
who"lose it," "go off the deep end," "go crazy," or "snap" in response
to getting laid off, being unable to find work and support their
families, or experiencing a significant loss of income. The media
report the most dramatic examples -- for example, the recent suicide of
French aristocrat Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet (who lost his
wealth as a victim of the Madoff scandal) and the murder-suicide
committed by a Southern California man who had lost his job.
The studies by Brenner and others can't predict which people
will exhibit these behaviors in response to economic hardship. But
Brenner says that these people aren't some subset of dysfunctional
people. They are mostly just normal people reacting to difficult times.
Last year, for example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 545,000 calls -- a 36% rise from the 2007 levels.
"The increase in suicide attempts and suicides during recessions is
one of the most predictable correlations we have," Brenner said. "Its
not only in response to unemployment. Its also about the loss of income
and wealth. Upper class people may even be more likely than others to
commit suicide when their circumstances change because they have much
more to lose."
Moreover, much like post-traumatic stress disorder in wartime, for
some people the symptoms become chronic and long-lasting, even after
they find work again. Psychological depression, troubled marriages, and
loss of self-confidence don't just go away when the economic recession
ends. Economic hardship leaves behind a trail of wounded people who
never fully recover.
This is particularly true now that our economy is undergoing a
wrenching transformation. There's no guarantee that even when economic
indicators improve, people who were laid off will return to work at the
same jobs -- or with the same pay and benefits -- that they had before.
Any way you slice it, a prolonged and deep recession is costly in
both economic and human terms. Economic hard times put demands on
society to increase its police, courts, prisons, health services,
social welfare programs (such as food stamps and child abuse services),
and other efforts, just at a time when its tougher to raise the
revenues to do so.
Brenner has been examining the social costs of economic fluctuations
since the 1970s, including two reports for the U.S. Congress. He's
updated his findings to account for changes in the economy as well as
changes in police practices, social policies, and access to health
services and medicine that may have their own impact on crime rates,
heart attacks, suicide, and other problems.
One thing that Brenner has not examined is whether these
symptoms are less likely to occur if people feel that things are
getting better and that they won't be out of work and out of luck
indefinitely. For a few years after the Great Depression began in 1929,
for example, Americans initially blamed themselves for their economic
problems. But as unions and community groups organized people to demand
changes in public policy, and after President Franklin Roosevelt took
office in 1933 and began the New Deal programs, they gave people a
sense of hope,
In his speech to Congress and the public two weeks ago, President
Obama sought to explain that our current economic problems are the
result of the misguided policies of the past, and that a different set
of policies can reverse our nation's economic direction. He didn't
promise a quick fix, but he argued that his stimulus plan, banking
reforms, foreclosure help, universal health insurance, and other
policies can put the economy -- and the American people -- back on
Political leaders like FDR and Obama can boost the nation's
self-confidence, but ultimately the hard economic realities take their
toll if joblessness and purchasing power don't improve.
Brenner's and others' research suggest that the Bureau of Labor
Statistics or another federal government agency should start to
systematically issue a "social health impact report" as part of their
routine updates on the nation's economic health. It would chart how
Americans are coping -- or not coping -- by tracking the link between
economic dislocations and the symptoms of stress -- suicides,
homicides, domestic violence, child abuse, heart attacks, and others.
This would give the public, the media, and policymakers a more
realistic picture of the human costs of economic downturns -- and
perhaps a greater sense of urgency to fix the economic hardships so
that Americans can start putting their lives, families, and communities
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