The health problems faced by Americans who can’t find work


(Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

Is it news to say that being unemployed for a long period is bad for your health? Studies have shown that losing work can be associated with a drop in life expectancy and a rise in psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. But for the long-term unemployed (people out of work for six months or longer and still looking for work), there are higher rates of several dangerous health problems, which suggests that the unemployment crisis is also a public-health crisis.

gallup - unemployment health - june 2014

These numbers, released by Gallup on Wednesday, show that the longer someone is unemployed, the more likely they are to be obese or require treatment for high blood pressure. (The actual rate of people reporting high blood pressure is lower for overall unemployed people than it is for employed people, with an even lower rate for the short-term unemployed, making the issue for the long-term unemployed so stark.) As Gallup notes, there are probably multiple factors at play here: Some unemployed people may do things that cause more health problems, but others may have existing health issues that make it harder for them to find or keep work.

There is an acute issue here faced by people who are among the long-term unemployed, because individuals in this group are often unable to escape that category, research has found. People who go a long time without work are “an unlucky subset of the unemployed,” as this paper from the Brookings Institution put it. Many of the people who find jobs after at least six months without work are unemployed again a year later.

There is also a considerable difference in the obesity rates reported by people who have been unemployed for a year and those who go less than two weeks without work. (For a comparison, the obesity rate in the United States was 27.1 percent last year.)

gallup - obesity - june 2014

The unemployment rate last reported by the Labor Department was 6.3 percent, though of course the unemployment rate isn’t quite as useful an indicator these days. Another metric is the labor force participation rate, which was just shy of 63 percent in May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. There were 9.8 million unemployed Americans in May, according to the BLS. Nearly a third of these people — 3.4 million — were the long-term unemployed. And their health issues are being treated by a health-care system that, we were reminded earlier this week, is considered both massively expensive and ineffective.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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