The Dismal Science: Unemployment Rates, Suicide, and Traffic Deaths

Two studies, one by the CDC and another by a Loyola prof, find that suicide rates correlate with U.S. unemployment rates and mass layoffs, respectively. A third has similar findings for Europe, but also suggests traffic fatalities decrease during times of economic hardship, which may explain local trends.

Unemployment sign

 

Somehow—it was early, and I start my roundup of grim economic news before I’m fully awake—I was alerted to this year-old piece in the Washington Independent by Annie Lowery, now at Slate, about suicide and unemployment. It’s very good throughout, but this jumped out at me:

The governmental statistics on suicide, unemployment and the relationship between the two are surprisingly thin.

[snip]

Economists Richard Dunn of Texas A&M University and Timothy Classen of Loyola University Chicago are conducting some of those studies. They wanted to pinpoint the effect joblessness had on suicide rates…. So they looked for natural experiments, where workers were fired for reasons other than job performance. They zeroed in on mass layoffs, like when a factory closes and thousands of workers find themselves suddenly unemployed.

Dunn and Classen, who have previously studied the link between suicides and presidential elections, released an early version of the paper in 2009 (PDF); it was published earlier this year in Health Economics. Their findings, covering 1996 through 2005, aren’t surprising: “mass layoffs and long spells of unemployment specifically were associated with increased suicide risk.” This should be of particular concern since unemployment duration is at unprecedented levels, and since concerns are rising about the unwillingness of employers to even consider hiring the unemployed:

“We may be seeing what’s called statistical discrimination,” said Robert Shimer, a labor economist at the University of Chicago. “On average, these workers might be less attractive, and employers don’t bother to look more closely to pick out the good ones.”

And the data is getting less thin. The research by Dunn and Classen tracks with a CDC study published shortly thereafter about suicide rates from 1928 through 2007—i.e. from the Great Depression to the Great Recession:

The study found the strongest association between business cycles and suicide among people in prime working ages, 25-64 years old.

[snip]

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.

But when reading up on Dunn, Classen, and their field of study, I came across something fascinating about another study that focused on suicide and economic stress in Europe:

If there’s a silver lining to Stuckler’s findings, it’s that a drop in traffic deaths appears to have canceled out the impact of the added suicides on the overall mortality rate of the countries.

Why fascinating? Well, while reading up on accident rates in Cook County for my previous post, I came across a surprise in the IDOT crash statistics. Vehicle crashes declined over the oughts, but the decline between 2008 and 2009 was unusual.

2005: 209,165

2006: 203,035

2007: 206,884

2008: 197,144

2009: 138,297

Some of the huge 2008-2009 drop can be attributed to a new reporting threshold. But the number of deaths also dropped:

2005: 378

2006: 362

2007: 348

2008 (when the recession really hit): 272

2009: 264

Likewise, NHTSA data shows a substantial statewide decline in traffic fatalities during 2008 and 2009.

 

Photograph: khawkins04 (CC by 2.0)

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