By Michael Yudell
Friday’s release of April’s weak jobs data was bad news for American workers in more ways than you might suspect, and bad news, perhaps, for the reelection prospects of President Obama. Only 115,000 jobs were added last month, a decline from 154,000 in March and well more than 200,000 for each month from December through February. We continue on course for an excruciatingly slow jobs recovery from our Great Recession.
The bad news for the employment market is obvious: even as the official unemployment number dipped a tenth of a percent to 8.1 percent, that dip was caused not by added jobs but by the 342,000 workers who stopped looking for them. These numbers become bleaker when adding in part-time workers who want full-time work and many but not all of those who’ve stopped looking for work — known as the U6, it pegs unemployment at a whopping 14.5 percent.
The bad news for the health of unemployed American workers is less obvious: unemployment, both short and long-term, it turns out, is very bad for the public’s physical- and mental-health status. Americans who are unemployed, especially those with low education or those who do not have unemployment benefits, have poorer health outcomes than those with steady jobs.
The relationship between employment status and health is well-documented – and it is something we should remind ourselves of during this ongoing downturn, and something that should motivate us to press for policies that increase jobs. A 1985 study, for example, showed that in unemployed men depression and anxiety were greater than in employed men, and that “unemployed men made significantly more visits to their physicians, took more medications, and spent more days in bed sick than did employed individuals even though the number of diagnoses in the two groups were similar.”
More recent studies confirm and elaborate on those earlier findings. A 2009 study conducted by sociologist Kate Strully at the University of Albany found that “when workers lose income, occupational standing, wealth and/or health insurance because of displacement, their health is likely to suffer.” Job loss places the unemployed at risk for increased alcohol consumption and weight gain, involuntary job loss among older workers is a risk factor for cardiovascular illness and stroke, and the risk of suicide increases with the length of unemployment.
With unemployment comes financial strain from the loss of income and emotional stress from the loss of income and status. Both of these factors, it seems, lead to poor health outcomes for the unemployed. The mechanisms by which this happens remain under study.
Meanwhile, perhaps the best thing that we can do as a nation is to first realize that challenges faced by the unemployed are far more consequential than a sound bite about the latest job-loss numbers on the evening news, and, second, that we should be obligated by our moral outrage at the plight of the unemployed to demand so much more of our politicians. More than four years into our Great Recession, we have failed to do just that in a fundamental way. The fault lies in politics as much as it lies in all of us.
President Obama, although you are in the middle of a campaign, don’t allow those in Congress or the pundit class in D.C. to stop you from doing all in your power to increase employment as fast as you can. Even if you can’t get something through Congress, at least try. Make this the centerpiece of your campaign.
Candidate Romney, stop pandering to your right flank by making ridiculous claims about creating half-a-million jobs per month by going back to the policies of George W. Bush, when job creation during his administration’s first 7 years averaged 66,000 per month. Get real if you want to be taken seriously as a candidate.
Yes, things have improved, and yes, we can argue about the successes and failures of that improvement, whether it is happening fast enough, and who is helping or hindering this process. But we are in this mess together. Those who are unemployed are our families and friends, our former co-workers, and those we will never know.
It’s not just their livelihoods that depend on more rapid job growth, it is also their health.
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