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February 27th, 2003

Thanks, Boss!

Don't Look Now, Unemployment Is Good for You

 
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Just when you think you’ve heard it all comes this nugget: Joblessness may be good for you.

This curious theory comes courtesy of University of North Carolina economist Christopher Ruhm. Ruhm’s theory, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, states that for every 1 percent rise in the unemployment rate the death rate falls by 0.5 percent. To hear Ruhm tell it, when jobs are scarce people behave in a healthier manner. They exercise more, eat out less, and don’t make a habit of skipping doctor’s appointment when unemployed.

Excuse me?

I missed out
If what Ruhm says is true, why is it that I’m more likely to scarf a bag of Cheetos, cancel doctor’s appointments due to lost benefits, and forgo exercise to save on costly gym fees when I’m unemployed?

Have I somehow missed out on the good life of unemployment?

Ruhm goes on to argue that an increase in 1 percent in a state’s unemployment rate reduces smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity by 0.6 percent, 0.3 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively.

Should my unemployed soul be impressed with these numbers after I crunch them into a calculator?a calculator I had to borrow because I can’t afford batteries to power my own?

Perhaps Ruhm has spent little time on the unemployment line lately. No doubt he’s not a frequent visitor to MonsterJobs.com. I’m sure Ruhm is well intentioned, and his data beyond reproach.

Stats and the whole story
But I believe he’s missed a very big point: you can’t quantify the effects of joblessness by just crunching numbers. Unemployment is as much a psychological condition as a physical one. Anyone suffering unemployment knows what I’m talking about. It’s a game of fear, and it plays 24/7.

I think it is counterproductive to put forth such theories during such stressful economic times.

Ruhm’s findings are a spin doctor’s dream. It helps cast a positive patina on what’s happened to the 1.7 million jobs that have disappeared since March of 2001. So, naturally, every astute media watcher and skeptic must see the appearance of Ruhm’s findings in most newspapers and broadcasts as lightly suspect.

What else is good for you?
Be careful. Next thing you know you’ll be hearing that being one of America’s “working poor” may be good for you.

What can be better than picking artichokes in a sun-dappled field, or gutting a pig’s entrails in a slaughterhouse? Think of all those muscle groups you’re working! Think of all the improved hand-eye coordination!

This all reminds me of that statistic of how people fear public speaking more than they do death.

Sure, the data on that may be statistically solid. But is it relevant? And is it, ultimately, true?

Can’t you just hear all those folks screaming they were wrong…from six feet under?

 
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The Author : Edward Ortiz
Edward Ortiz is a journalist and writer from western Massachsetts.
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