January 19, 2003

The Sick Economy

By RICH MORIN
Washington Post

Watch out: Whenever Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan does his part to help jump-start a sluggish U.S. economy, it just might kill you.

No, the Fed chairman isn't intentionally trying to get us. But according to economist Christopher J. Ruhm of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, short-term improvements in the economy can be good for our pocketbooks and yet bad for our health.

Ruhm and Swedish economist Ulf-G. Gerdtham analyzed economic and health data collected between 1960 and 1997 by the governments of 23 developed countries, including the United States. They found that a 1-percentage-point drop in the overall unemployment rate was associated with about a 2-percent increase in deaths from liver disease and motor vehicle fatalities, as well as about a 1-point rise in mortality due to heart disease and from the flu or pneumonia.

"Deaths rise when labor markets are strong," they concluded in a paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

It's not just visits from the Grim Reaper that increase during fat times. In another paper, provocatively titled "Good Times Make You Sick," Ruhm noted that Americans were more likely to come down with all sorts of non-fatal illnesses when the economy is getting better.

Is that really true? Didn't researchers in the 1980s claim that upturns in the economy benefited health by reducing the stress typically associated with unemployment and financial uncertainty?

They did, he acknowledged. But new data and more sophisticated analytical tools tell a different story, Ruhm claims.

He found that one reason good times seem to promote bad health is that people have less time to do healthy things when the economy is on the rise. "They're working longer hours so they have less time for leisure activities that promote health, such as exercise," he said.

And, he asserts, longer hours for workers means more hours at dangerous jobs. "Hazardous working conditions, the physical exertion of employment and job-related stress could have negative effects, particularly when jobs hours are extended during short-lasting economic expansions." Some kinds of hazardous occupations -- construction work, for example -- are especially sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy.

Finally, he said, good times mean that people have money to spend on riskier or otherwise unhealthy things. For example, "people drive more when the economy is good. They also ski more and do other things that pose risks," which, Ruhm said, explains why traffic fatalities as well as accidental deaths of all types increase when the economy improves.

They also eat and drink more, and as a consequence grow fatter. In a recent paper in the Journal of Health Economics, Ruhm and colleague William E. Black of Mathematica Policy Research found that people drink more alcohol during economic upturns and are more likely to drink excessively.

"Not everything about good economic times is necessarily good," Ruhm said.

Intolerance and the Young

Anti-Semitism may be increasing in the United States as more young adults express bigoted views about Jews than do middle-aged Americans, according to a national poll by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

On question after question, researchers found that the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 who held anti-Semitic views was consistently higher than the percentage of middle-aged Americans who shared those attitudes.

For example, nearly one in four young adults -- 23 percent -- agreed with the statement that Jews were a "threat" to the "moral character" of the country, a view shared by 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54. And 20 percent of young adults agreed that Jews "care only about themselves," compared with 12 percent of middle-aged Americans.

Gary Tobin, president of the group that commissioned the survey, suggested that the disquieting results may reflect "the blurring of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on college campuses" and that "the social norms against anti-Semitism that took root following the Holocaust have worn off."

The survey also found that nearly a third of all Americans worried that a Jewish president would put the interests of Israel ahead of those of the United States. And fewer than half disagreed with the statement that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. (For the record, scholars blame the Romans for Christ's crucifixion.) "One thing this survey shows is that anti-Semitism is alive and well in this country," Tobin said.

The survey of about 1,000 randomly selected adults was conducted in May. Margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Words Matter

Can't anyone translate this language?

Apparently not, if the language is English, as the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press learned when it conducted a worldwide poll that was translated into 63 different languages and dialects, and then translated back into English to check the translation.

Turns out the ride to English and back was a bit bumpy at times, Andrew Kohut, the center's director, told our colleague Claudia Deane. In Ghana, for example, the original phrase "married or living with a partner" was first translated into one of the country's tribal languages as "married but have a girlfriend" and the category "Separated" came out, "There's a misunderstanding between me and my spouse."

Then there were these two gems from a version of the questionnaire used in Nigeria: "American ideas and customs" became "the ideology of America and border guards." ("Customs," "border guards" -- get it?) And in place of "success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside of our control," the Nigerian version initially read: "Goodness in life starts with blessings from one's personal god."

Kohut said the meanings were corrected in the final version of the questionnaires. The lesson?

"Multinational researchers, please check your translations," Kohut said.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

For Further Information, Contact IJCR

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