More people die in economic expansions, and fewer die in recessions. Whether and how policy makers should heed this pattern depends on the hitherto unknown links between mortality and economic activity.
Recessions can be stressful and depressing, especially for the people who lose their jobs. Suicide rates spike during recessions, and for that reason alone recessions have been called deadly. Two researchers, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, noted that suicides and binge drinking are positively correlated with unemployment and concluded that “Austerity kills” by adding to unemployment.
Even if we could be sure that austerity and related fiscal policies create recessions, it would be premature to conclude that they literally kill people. Industrial and construction accidents are more common in economic expansions, and less common in recessions because those industries’ activities follow the business cycle. Overtime hours may be more dangerous than average, and overtime is more common at the peak of the business cycle. Moreover, the share of people working in construction – one of the most hazardous industries – increases during expansions and falls during recessions.
Highway accidents also follow the business cycle because more vehicles are on the road during economic expansions, and fewer on the road during recessions. (Mr. Stuckley and Mr. Basu noted that the United States’ Great Depression of the 1930s also had abnormally low rates of fatalities due to traffic accidents.)
With more accidents at work and on the road during expansions, expansions have more deaths by such accidents, and recessions have fewer.
It turns out that the business cycle for suicides is more than offset by the business cycle for other deaths. Mortality and the unemployment rate are negatively correlated. Christopher J. Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, has looked at all causes of death and found that most of them – suicide was the exception – occur less frequently at the depths of the business cycle.
Perhaps most surprising is that the business cycle for overall deaths is dominated by the business cycle for deaths among elderly people, perhaps especially elderly women. Because so many elderly people are retired, they are especially unlikely to have recently been laid off from their job (which can lead to suicide), to drive their car to work hurriedly, or to take part in a dangerous construction project.
We don’t really know how the business cycle for economic activity is connected to the cycle for elderly deaths. One hypothesis is that economic expansions create air pollution, and air pollution kills elderly people. Another hypothesis is that nursing homes have more trouble retaining their staffs during expansions because they have to compete with other businesses. Perhaps family members who are busy at work during expansions spend less time helping their elderly relatives.
Life is valuable, so it may be at least as important to understand what determines mortality and its cycles as it is to understand what causes recessions.