A few weeks ago I got a chance to listen to Geoff Colvin talk about his new book, The Upside of the Downturn. Geoff, a long-time editor and columnist for Fortune Magazine, is an engaging speaker and he peppered his opening comments with headlines from that morning’s newspapers. He also made the intriguing claim death rates go down in a recession and offered up as evidence that profits were down at the U.S.’s largest maker of caskets.
Several of us discussed this claim afterwards and found it hard to believe. With lower income, we expected people would eat cheaper, less nutritious food. Unhealthy habits like smoking and alcohol seem recession-proof and might even increase. We assumed death rates were more likely to increase during a recession.
For fun, we tried to come up with theories which would prove the claim. Perhaps high gas prices might be the cause of lower death rates. Since people drive less, they’re in fewer fatal auto accidents. People who have to bike to work lose weight and become healthier. Alternately, perhaps fewer people can afford to eat out and make meals from scratch. These home-made meals have less saturated fat and salt which in turn improves health.
These are amusing theories but miss the real reason the claim is apparently true. Christopher J. Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, observed the correlation in a 2003 paper, “Healthy Living in Hard Times.” Ruhm found the death rate decreases by 0.5% for every 1% increase in the unemployment rate.
In a Fortune article, Colvin explained that the primary reason is that people without jobs have more time to exercise. Losing weight correlates with less smoking, both of which improve your health. Out of work people also have more time to sleep which in turn improves health.
The recession leads to better health and longer lives. That is the upside of the downturn.
While it may be true that people live more healthily during a downturn, I find it hard to believe that can cause a lower death rate during the downturn. It is really unlikely that the effect of exercise shows up so quickly in life expectancy (recessions only last a couple years at most) of any individual.
It may be true that profits are down for casket makers but there are many possible explanations that do not involve lass deaths (customers buying cheaper, lower-margin caskets, for example).
Data is great but, without understanding, can lead you astray
Oski, you are right to be suspicious which was the impetus of my post in the first place. I’ve looked at the UNC-G report and deaths do indeed go down (not just casket sales). The correlation is there but it may not imply cause.