Social Costs of Rising Unemployment

job market raptureUnions Are Not Special Interests: They Fight For the Betterment of All Americans

While economists and national policymakers discuss economics in coldly statistical terms, research has shown that social costs of economic downturns, particularly rising unemployment rates have personal and social costs not previously discussed. In a study called, “Estimating the Social Costs of National Economic Policy, Implications for Mental, Physical Health and Criminal Aggression,” by Harvey Brenner, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Social Relations, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Johns Hopkins University; Brenner documents these personal and social costs.

This study was done at the request of the late Hubert H. Humphrey when he was chairman of the Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress in 1976. Since that time, there has been no refutation of Brenner’s work by anyone who has done as extensive research as performed in this study.

Brenner was able to quantify the impact of rising unemployment, particularly every 1.4% rise in unemployment on several important social and personal indices. These indices, which Brenner studied over a 34-year period, encompassed such measures as suicides, state mental health hospital admissions, state prison admissions, homicides, cirrhosis of the liver and other social and personal health measures.

The study covered the following time spans 1940-1974. His study showed that for every 1.4% rise in unemployment, there was an increase in the following pathologies:

Cumulative Impact of the 1.4 Percent Rise in Unemployment

Social Stress Indicator Stress Incidence 1975 Change in Stress Indicator for a 1.4 Percent Rise in Unemployment Increase in Stress Incidence Due to the Rise in Unemployment
Suicide: 26,960 5.7% 1,540
State Mental Hospital Admission: 117,480* 4.7 5,520
State Prison Admission: 136,875** 5.6 7,660
Homicide: 21,730 8.0 1,740
Cirrhosis of the Liver Mortality: 32,080 2.7 870
Cardiovascular-Renal Disease Mortality: 979,180 2.7 26,440
Total Mortality: 1,910,000 2.7 51,570


* 1972 Data, age 65 and under.     ** 1974 Data

The basic model that Brenner used included several factors which influenced what he described as social distress. These were per capita income, the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation. The pathological indices he used for this study were:

  • Age and sex – specific mortality rates
  • Cardiovascular – renal disease mortality rates
  • Suicide mortality rates
  • Homicide mortality rates
  • Mental hospital admission rates
  • Imprisonment rates
Sy Slavin

Sy Slavin

His study also documents the correlation between low socio-economic status and individual pathologies. The context of this study is really the degree to which society as a whole can improve material living conditions, such as good health care, sound and available education for all, good middle class wage jobs, and opportunities for minorities, women and youth. These are the precise goals an objective that unions have always championed and fought for, from the bargaining table to the halls of congress and picket lines when necessary.


Unions are not a special interest as the corporate media seeks often to portray; in reality, unions reflect the values and needs of the entire society. They are in effect the conscience of our nation.

Seymour (Sy) Slavin, Ph.D.
Director. Kentucky Labor Institute

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