Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- There is now a minor but raging academic debate taking place over the effect of an economic downturn on your health.

In the traditional view, unemployment can cause a kind of recession flu -- a funk that leads to stress smoking, unhealthy comfort foods and that problematic flu remedy, alcohol. Studies have tied personal financial crises to heart disease, depression and suicide.

There is, however, an unexpected counterargument. Studying decades of public health data, Christopher Ruhm of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro confirmed that a recession increases mental health problems. But he found that physical health actually improves -- about a half-point decline in the death rate for every point of increase in the unemployment rate. During tough economic times, people seem to increase exercise, take fewer car trips, reduce smoking and cook healthier foods at home -- choosing to control the remaining things in their lives they are capable of controlling.

There is a parallel debate about the influence of economic hard times on the nation's moral health. Without question, the most acute social problems -- crime, illegitimacy, etc. -- are concentrated in areas of highest poverty. But sociologists and criminologists have long pondered an apparent paradox. During the Great Depression -- with about a quarter of Americans out of work -- crime and divorce declined. During the relative prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, crime rates shot up and families broke down.

Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it. But times of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal. "One reasonable hypothesis," argues James Q. Wilson, "is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime." Many Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes -- and have decayed in our own. The Depression generation controlled the things they could control -- including their own consumption and character.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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