The Physical and Emotional Costs of Long-Term Unemployment

Studies show this crisis isn't just about money any more.

By Yvonne Yen Liu Nov 17, 2010

CNN and the New York Times report new research that shows that long-term unemployment doesn’t just impact the jobless in the short-term, but has deep implications for the lifelong health and well-being of an individual as well as their children and families. One study by a sociologist at Albany, Kate W. Strully, found that people who lose their jobs are 83 percent more likely to develop stress-induced conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, or depression.

Another paper by an economist at Columbia University, Till von Wachter, looked at mortality and income records of workers in Pennsylvania during the recession of the early 1980s. Wachter found that death rates increased astronomically for the unemployed in the year they lose their jobs, up to 100 percent. Mortality rates remained significantly higher for those that lose their jobs than for comparable workers who didn’t. In fact, the life expectancy of the unemployed is cut by a year to a year and a half.

The NY Times shared also stories of white steel workers who had heart attacks after being laid off from their jobs because the steel mill closed. We know that workers of color feel these health impacts doubly, on top of the existing trauma of structural racism.

Here’s what all of this adds up to: We need the White House and Congress to put aside partisan bickering and craft a large-scale job creation program that will put the millions of unemployed to work. The crisis has gone on long enough and spread wide enough that the costs of not doing so spread way past economics. 

In the short-term, the lame-duck Congress will face a decision over whether to extend unemployment benefits. Typically, benefits last 26 weeks. The maximum time period was extended this past July, but will expire on Nov. 30 unless Congress passes legislation to continue relief. Yesterday, several advocacy groups sponsored a national call-in day to Congress to urge senators to continue unemployment benefits.

Unemployment insurance acts as a buffer, reducing the shock and strain on the jobless during economic hard times. It also stimulates spending in the economy, which can create jobs. The long-term unemployed have to spend their benefits immediately because they don’t have income or savings. That spending on food, rent and other basic needs translates into an infusion of cash into the economy and the creation of jobs. The Economic Policy Institute calculated that extending the unemployment insurance generated 1.7 million jobs in the first quarter of 2010. Were Congress to continue benefits through 2011, EPI estimates that over 700,000 jobs will be created.

Our people are hurting now, not only economically, but also in physical and emotional well-being. Extending benefits for the unemployed is the least our government can due for us, in our time of great need.