Recessions Are Matters of Life and Death

I think it’s always important for policy wonks, politicians, and tenured professors to careful when discussing recessions and unemployment.  It’s very easy from the safety of a secure income to focus on the data and the numbers.  But behind the data and numbers are real humans.  Recessions and high unemployment have real, human costs. It’s truly a matter of life and death.  This recently reported from Calculated Risk Blog shows suicides rising in connection with a poor economy:

From the CDC: CDC Study Finds Suicide Rates Rise and Fall with Economy

The overall suicide rate rises and falls in connection with the economy, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released online today by the American Journal of Public Health. The study, “Impact of Business Cycles on the U.S. Suicide Rates, 1928–2007″ is the first to examine the relationships between age-specific suicide rates and business cycles. The study found the strongest association between business cycles and suicide among people in prime working ages, 25-64 years old.

• The overall suicide rate generally rose in recessions like the Great Depression (1929-1933), the end of the New Deal (1937-1938), the Oil Crisis (1973-1975), and the Double-Dip Recession (1980-1982) and fell in expansions like the WWII period (1939-1945) and the longest expansion period (1991-2001) in which the economy experienced fast growth and low unemployment.

• The largest increase in the overall suicide rate occurred in the Great Depression (1929-1933)—it surged from 18.0 in 1928 to 22.1 (all-time high) in 1932 (the last full year in the Great Depression)—a record increase of 22.8% in any four-year period in history. It fell to the lowest point in 2000.

• Suicide rates of two elderly groups (65-74 years and 75 years and older) and the oldest middle-age group (55-64) experienced the most significant decline from 1928 to 2007.

There is no data yet for the recent recession, but suicide rates probably increased significantly. This is another impact of the housing bubble – and there is no recovery for the families who lost someone to suicide.

The good news in this study is the long term decline in elderly suicide rates, probably because of improved access to medical care.

I agree with CR that the decline in suicide rates among the elderly from 1929 to 2007 is partly due to improved access to medical care (read Medicare), but it’s also no doubt due to Social Security.  The future seems less overwhelming when you have the confidence and security that Social Security can provide.  Unfortunately many in Washington today want to turn back the clock to an earlier era when the elderly didn’t have such security or medical care.  If that happens, we can expect suicide rates among the elderly to go back up.

I think it’s noteworthy that the connection is between suicides and recessions/higher unemployment.  It is not between suicides and inflation.  Just another reason why I think unemployment is the more serious and damaging problem of a macroeconomy.