Monday, October 20, 2008

Potential Positive Health Effects of Recessions

Three papers by Christopher Ruhm and a colleague have argued in the past that recessions might have some hidden positive consequences. This is the first recession in Ireland that people of my cohort will have experienced as adults. If Professor Ruhm's papers are correct, we should use any spare capacity that comes available to us to become more healthy.

Gerdtham, Ulf-G. & Ruhm, Christopher J., 2006. "Deaths rise in good economic times: Evidence from the OECD," Economics and Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 4(3), pages 298-316, December. [Downloadable!] (restricted)

Christopher J. Ruhm, 2000. "Are Recessions Good For Your Health?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 115(2), pages 617-650, May. [Downloadable!] (restricted)

Ruhm, Christopher J., 2005. "Healthy living in hard times," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(2), pages 341-363, March. [Downloadable!] (restricted)

Healthy Living in Hard Times
Using microdata for adults from 1987 to 2000 years of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), I show that smoking and excess weight decline during temporary economic downturns while leisure-time physical activity rises. The drop in tobacco use occurs disproportionately among heavy smokers, the fall in body weight among the severely obese and the increase in exercise among those who were completely inactive. Declining work hours may provide one reason why behaviors become healthier, possibly by increasing the non-market time available for lifestyle investments. Conversely, there is little evidence of an important role for income reductions. The overall conclusion is that changes in behaviors supply one mechanism for the procyclical variation in mortality and morbidity observed in recent research.


Gerard O'Neill said...

I'm all for seeing the silver linings as the clouds gather but ... isn't there similar evidence that some nations' health improved during war time (WWII in particular)?

It doesn't necessarily make war a good thing, nor recessions for that matter. But there is something interesting going on in terms of social psychology and recession (rather than standards of living). I suspect the main source of health 'improvements' is a war-time-like 'we're all in this together' sense of belonging.

And all the literature shows how important social connections and sense of community is to individual and collective well being. Put simply, in a recession we'll have (lots) more spare time to chat to people and get to know our neighbours.

Martin Ryan said...

Its definitely very interesting to consider how working time may be substituted for other acctivities during recession.

A friend, he won't mind me saying, recently got presented with the prospect of doing a three-day week at the graphic design company where he works. His substitution? Some freelance work, his portfolio and plans for an art exhibition.

Others may be less orientated or have the opportunity for such close substitution. And the questions remains as to whether they would invest in health, social capital or perhaps something altogether less positive. Orwell gave a very '1984' quote when he broached this issue in 'Down and Out in Paris and London':

"I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply a fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think."

Gerard O'Neill said...

Whilst we're quoting literature, how about this from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (Chapter 16):

Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn't. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them.

Written about the same time as Orwell, I believe. Mind you, who needs soma when you've got satellite tv? ;-)