Hidden costs of the recession

In a previous post I considered whether the current Great Recession had been good for your health. Evidence suggests that temporary reductions in income may improve your health for a number of reasons. In part, when I lose my job I may have expectations of finding work again in the short term, my skills may not depreciate in the short term, and I may be able to smooth my consumption with access to credit or savings and do more time-consuming, health-promoting things. But, the longer my spell of unemployment, the less access to health promoting goods I have and the greater the effects of socioeconomic deprivation. A number of studies have remarked on the link between income inequality and poor health (e.g. see here and here).

In the last post, I looked at a cross section of data from the 2011 census. I presented some correlations between the proportion of individuals who were unemployed and the proportion reporting bad health. I, and I am certainly not alone, may argue that myriad other factors could cause this observed relationship. I can’t prove or disprove any hypothesis in the space that this blog permits but I will add the following figure in support of the relationship. Here, I took data from both the 2001 and 2011 censuses for all lower super output areas (LSOAs; geographical areas of approximately 1,500 people) and looked at the relationship between the difference in the proportion unemployed and the difference in the proportion reporting bad health between 2001 and 2011:

change in prop bad health vs change unemployed

Given the long lag between 2001 and 2011, the arguments from the previous post, that this represents changes to structural unemployment rather than short term cyclical unemployment, may still stand. But, for whatever reason, there is a correlation between unemployment and self-reported bad health.

I should mention that the questions about health differed between the two censuses from three options in 2001: ‘good health’, ‘fair health’, or ‘bad health’, compared to five options in 2011: ‘very good health’, ‘good health’, ‘fair health’, ‘bad health’, and ‘very bad health’. I have compared here the percentage reporting the 2001 option ‘bad health’ to the combined ‘bad health’ and ‘very bad health’ option. You may think this is an affront to good data analysis, so to allay your fears I have provided versions of the following two figures that use only 2011 data. You will see that they tell the same story.

The increase to poor health as a result of increased socioeconomic deprivation is costly for a number of reasons. Considering healthcare, direct costs such as hospital admissions for physical and mental health problems may increase, along with the accompanying costs of providing pharmaceuticals and other treatments. One cost that is not well reported in the media is that of unpaid care. One study in the UK estimated the costs of services provided by unpaid carers to be as much as £87 billion per year. Now, those in poor health require care. The following figure shows the relationship between the change in the proportion of people reporting bad health and the change in the proportion of people providing more than 20 hours a week of unpaid care between 2001 and 2011 in each LSOA:

bad health vs unpaid care

bad health vs unpaid care 2011

2011 data only

I am not surprised by this relationship, and I doubt you are either. Then, it should also come as no surprise, given the previous two figures, that when I plot the relationship between the difference in the proportion unemployed and the difference in the proportion providing more than 20 hours unpaid care per week that there is also a strong relationship:

unemployed vs unpaid care

2011 data only

2011 data only

The relationship between health and economic conditions is complicated to say the least. What these data may indicate is that the cost due to increased unemployment may be far more than just reduced growth and output. Unpaid carers often have to leave employment to provide their services. Cutting back on health and social care funding in real terms will only shift the growing burden to individuals in poor areas, where health is worse, rather than to the state.

I would like to point out as a final note, and perhaps one of optimism, that the percentage of people reporting bad health has on average declined between 2001 and 2011. Although this may just be a case of hedonic adaptation…


  • Health economics, statistics, and health services research at the University of Warwick. Also like rock climbing and making noise on the guitar.

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