Debt, Unemployment, and Income Inequality are Public Health Issues

Oct 26, 2011Bryce Covert

The economic problems facing the average American can affect much more than a bank account.

One loud message from Occupy Wall Street is an outcry against income inequality. The flipside of that issue, and another grievance of the movement, is sky-high levels of personal debt. When working Americans are taking home less during the recovery, and have seen their share of national income falling for three decades, they must turn to debt to plug the holes and cover the basics. And there are millions of Americans who aren't even lucky enough to have a job right now.

All of these grave economic concerns also are also issues of public health. Striklingly, it turns out that each of the protest's main causes -- income inequality, unemployment, and high levels of debt -- are all making us unhealthier.

Foreclosure is now shown to not just be a financial strain, but a mental and physical one. As Craig Pollack and Julia Lynch write in the New York Times, "A growing body of research shows that foreclosure itself harms the health of families and communities." The authors cite a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found people who live in places with high rates of foreclosure -- New Jersey, Arizona, California, and Florida -- are at significantly more risk of being hospitalized by diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure. The authors found that in their own survey, 32 percent of people facing foreclosure in Philadelphia reported missing doctor's appointment and 48 percent had let prescriptions go unfilled, which is "significantly higher" than other people in the area.

It's not just a risk to physical health, but also greatly affects mental health. More than one-third of those in their survey had symptoms of major depression. The NBER study found a higher number of suicide attempts. And for every 100 foreclosures, that study found a 12 percent increase in anxiety-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s news, delivered straight to your inbox.

It's pretty clear that foreclosures, as Mike Konczal says, are a lose-lose-lose situation financially. Neither the borrower, the lender, nor the community benefit -- they all suffer. It's also clear that they're a lose-lose situation in terms of health.

It's not just foreclosure that's affecting our health. Unemployment also takes its toll. As the Washington Post reported, "A 2009 survey by Mental Health America, a mental health advocacy group, concluded that the unemployed were four times more likely to report symptoms of mental illness than a working individual." Another study by Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development found highly increased levels of stress for the jobless, and 11 percent sought professional help for depression in the past year. These findings are corroborated by larger research, which finds a strong correlation between high levels of unemployment and suicide, an a recent CDC study found that "the U.S. suicide rate has ticked up every time the economy has fallen into recession since the 1929 stock market crash."

And last but not least, the very issue of income inequality itself, a phenomenon starkly on the rise for the last three decades, is making us sick. More than income or absolute wealth, inequality that has the biggest impact on health, Time reports. This plays out across the globe:

At a basic level, a country's overall economic success does predict its people's well-being, but the healthiest and happiest countries in the world are not the richest. Rather, they are countries where wealth is shared widely and more equally... Indeed, in country-to-country comparisons, researchers find that the greater the difference between the richest and the poorest in a society, the worse off everyone in that society seems to be.

Japan and Scandinavia, which have more equal societies, also experience "greater life expectancy, lower infant mortality, reduced obesity, heart disease and mental illnesses, and lower rates of murder and addictions."

These financially related health problems will end up creating a vicious cycle, as many people do not have the money to treat them and may even turn to credit cards to pay for health care, landing themselves in more debt. Not to mention that health issues can even come in the way of finding a job for those who are unemployed. It's important to keep in mind that the economic problems facing so many Americans today have impacts far beyond their wallets.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

Share This