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Working In These Times

Thursday, Sep 17, 2009, 1:03 pm

Mass Unemployment: An Epidemic of ‘Social Murder’

BY Roger Bybee

Unemployment quite literally kills.

Fifteen million people out of work represents an epidemic of what 19th century philosopher Friedrich Engels called "social murder."

"They [layoffs] are the opposite of life-giving; they literally deplete life," declared Kim Carmon, an organizational psychologist at the University of Michigan, in a powerful distillation of what unemployed workers go through.

"Layoffs diminish the ability to restart," Carmon told Louis Uchitelle for his moving and insightful book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences.

Precisely at the moment that suddenly idle working people need to muster all of their resources to find new work in an environment with few opportunities, they tend to feel their self-esteem ebbing away.

Even the strong support of loved ones is often unable to restore the resilience of someone who suffers the loss of a job.

"You can have all kinds of people like spouses and friends say you are terrific, you are wonderful, you are great, but in the core you say, I am not, and I have big evidence that I am not," Prof. Carmon said. 

A new study of 1,200 laid-off workers by Rutgers University researchers Carl Van Horn and Cliff Surkin produced a distressing picture of this traumatic psychological toll:

Two-thirds of respondents said that they had become depressed. More than half said it was the first time they had ever lost a job, and 80 percent said there was little or no chance that they would be able to get their jobs back when the economy improves.

The 1,200 respondents were jobless at some point over the past year, and most — 894 — are still unemployed. More than half said that they had been forced to borrow money from friends or relatives, and a quarter have missed their mortgage or rent payments.

While we have heard pundits talk endlessly about the strong safety net that jobless workers of this generation now have that their predecessors lacked during the Great Depression, fully 56% of the jobless studied by Van Horn and Zukin lacked unemployment compensation.

The impact of being jobless takes many forms. The severity of the current recession and the limited prospects for finding ego-restoring work leads 52% to avoid contact with family and friends, even though they are badly in need of human contact and support.

The new jobless feel deflated by their new status. As one unemployed worker put it, “I’ve always worked, so this is very depressing. At age 60, I never believed I would be unemployed unless I chose to be.”

Said another: “I fear for my family and my future. We are about to be evicted, and bills are piling. We have sold everything we possibly can to maintain, and are going under with little hope of anything.”

“This is not your ordinary dip in the business cycle,” Van Horn said. “Americans believe that this is the Katrina of recessions. Folks are on their rooftops without a boat.”

And as with Katrina, the outcome of this desperation is devastating and drives people to perversely turn on the very people who love them. Thus, family violence increases sharply, as Prof. Peter Dreier of Occidental College explains:

A 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice found that the rate of violence against women increases as male unemployment increases. When a woman's male partner is employed, the rate of violence is 4.7%. It is 7.5% when the male partner experiences one period of unemployment. It increases to 12.3% when the male experiences two or more periods of unemployment.

Sociologist and public-health specialist Dr. Harvey Brenner has been studying the relationship between unemployment and social outcomes. Dr. Brenner has found that there is a direct and predictable connection between rising unemployment and a set of tragic consequences.

According to Brenner, each 1% rise in unemployment sustained over six years results in an additional 47,000 deaths, and:

  • About 26,000 of these deaths will come from heart attacks,
  • Approximately 1,200 jobless workers will commit suicide;
  • Roughly 831 will commit murders;
  • At least 4,000 state mental hospital admissions;
  • Over 3,300 state prison admissions;
  • And there will be about 635 deaths related to alcohol consumption.

Further, it is "likely that permanent layoffs [from plant closings and other long-term job eliminations] caused even more social trauma than unemployment arising from other causes," reported Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America, which is rapidly regaining relevance as Corporate America shuts down more and more of the nation' productive capacity.

Bluestone and Harrison cited one study of a group of displaced workers found a suicide rate "30 times the expected number."

With the US economy so heavily dependent on consumer spending—because we make a decreasing amount of what we can buy—we can't have a full recovery without average households recovering.

The investment banks may be starting to roll in money again and are even speculating on life insurance policies, but ordinary families are still eking through each month's mortgage and car payments.

Meanwhile, the reports of improved economic indicators are clouded by talk of a "jobless recovery." Today's news—that new claims for unemployment fell 12,000 last week, to 545,000—is hardly much of a good sign. The total number of Americans on unemployment continues to rise.

Without a a much stronger stimulus that restores jobs and decent wages, the "social murder" of the unemployed will continue.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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