Recession caused rise in homicides, suicides, poor health, new study says

October 17, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The stress and strain of the 1989-90 recession took an appalling human toll in health and behavior, according to a new Johns Hopkins University study.

The tally: 35,000 extra fatal heart attacks and strokes, 1,500 homicides and 2,300 suicides.

The study, by Harvey Brenner, professor of health policy and management at the School of Hygiene and Public Health, sought to measure a direct link between economic hard times and ill health and crime.

The triggers for health deterioration and increased crime were loss of normal income growth, increased unemployment and an accelerated rate of business failures, the study found. All can produce family stress, job anxiety and possibly altered social behavior and status.

"It is now evident that severe anxiety and loss, as well as damage to social relations, are significant risks to disorders of the immune, cardiovascular and central nervous systems," said Dr. Brenner, in a paper presented at the Harvard School of Public Health yesterday.

"These disorders are significant sources of ill health, including infections, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, kidney disease, diabetes, mental disorders and uncontrolled violence," he said.

A recession can encourage people to resort to such dangerous "coping mechanisms" as alcohol, drugs, tobacco and diminished dietary control, the study said.

Hard times can produce alienation from society, which "may also involve a sense of injustice over life's misfortunes," leading to crime to recoup income or status, or to violence as an expression of rage, according to the study.

Since World War II, normal annual income growth has been around 3 percent; in the 1988-90 recession, it was zero. The unemployment rate increased by 1.3 percentage points during the recession, to 6.8 percent, lower than it is today but sufficient to contribute to the health and behavioral problems, the study said.

Business failures increased from 65 per 1,000 businesses before the recession to 75 per 1,000 during the recession.

The result, according to Dr. Brenner, who worked out a series of equations relating economic indexes to medical and social conditions: A 3.6 percent increase in deaths due to heart disease and strokes; a 4.2 percent increase in homicides, and a 3.9 percent increase in suicides.

He estimated that in each year of the two-year recession an extra 17,800 people died from heart disease and strokes; 760 were murdered, and 1,170 committed suicide.

"Economic policy decisions, therefore, can be assumed to have a profound effect on many aspects of societal health and well-being," he said, adding: "Action is obviously required to remedy the short- and long-term problems of the United States' economy -- especially low investment, wage stagnation, continuing and relatively high unemployment rates and poverty."

Dr. Brenner's report was issued by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, with a corroborating study by two economists at the University of Utah. They came to similar findings using different methodology after studying recession-related health and behavioral problems in 30 major metropolitan areas with a combined population of 80 million.

The release of such recessionrelated analyses less than three weeks from Election Day by a research group that is actively supporting the Democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore clearly had political overtones. The institute's director, Jeff Faux, is an informal economic adviser to Mr. Clinton, and this month organized his endorsement by 556 economists.

Roger Hickey, spokesman for the institute, said it commissioned months ago the study on the health and behavioral impact of recession from the two Utah economists, Mary Merva and Richard Fowles. Dr. Brenner was known as a leading authority in the field after completing earlier reports on the issue in 1976 and 1984 for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

When the Utah report arrived, the institute "ran it by" Dr. Brenner, who informed them of his own new research and agreed the two reports should be released together.

Dr. Brenner, in a telephone interview from Harvard, confirmed Mr. Hickey's account, and said he was aware of the Institute's pro-Clinton orientation.

He would not discuss his own political sympathies, but said: "Coming to the bottom line, health has not had a seat at the table of economic decision-making. It has always been regarded as a result of acts of God or matters to do with the peculiarities of the health habits of the general population.

"Part of that is true, but all these factors . . . are highly correlated with change in the economy. It seemed to me it was a reasonable idea to have this information as a source of discussion on economic decision-making at this time.

"It is important at this point to have some significant stimulation of the economy. That is as far as I would be prepared to go."

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