Thanks, Recession!: First You Lose Your Job, Then You Die Early

The recession is shaving years off our life expectancies. Why? Two words: health care.

Cheery economic news! Over the weekend, the New York Times told us that even though young college grads are living miserable lives in their parents’ basements and 30-somethings can’t afford to marry or breed, older Americans—those close to retirement age when the Great Recession hit—are suffering most of all, because losing their jobs is killing them. Literally. A team of Wellesley College researchers reports that unemployment is slashing as much as three years off normal life expectancies of older people. Why? They can’t afford health care.

The Times article, by Catherine Rampell, notes that while unemployment rates are lower for Americans in their 50s and 60s than for the younger cohorts, it’s much harder for them to find work again once they’re let go—they’re unemployed for an average of 53 weeks, compared to 19 weeks for those in their teens. Employers believe that older potential hires are too hard to train and will cost too much in … all together now: health benefits. Discouraged would-be employees leave the workforce rather than face the demoralizing odds of finding a new job; many opt to join Social Security early, thus permanently diminishing the monthly benefits they receive. The overall combination of loss of income, worry and anxiety, and lack of health care is leading to early death. The situation’s dire enough that Slate’s Matthew Yglesias scents a conspiracy:

“Failure to provide adequate social services to unemployed 61-year-olds not only saves money because you don’t need to pay for the benefits, it saves even more money when it leads to that guy dying at 71 rather than 74. To some, those are three extra years to spend with your grandkids. But to the Congressional Budget Office, that’s just more Social Security checks and more Medicare bills.”

In a recent survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, older workers and retirees say they’re working or did work longer than they wanted or planned to because of one factor: They needed the health-care benefits. Such workers are taking up slots that younger workers, who are trying to get their lives jump-started, long to fill. Obamacare should help remedy the situation, since it requires insurers to cover those with preexisting conditions, limits how much they can charge older people for coverage—no more than three times what they charge younger enrollees—and caps premiums at a percentage of income. The economics of health-care reform could turn out to be surprisingly positive, if access to insurance means older workers can retire earlier and open more jobs for the young.

Meanwhile, two fascinating tidbits from the Times piece: More than one in eight Americans in their late 50s is now receiving some form of federal disability payment, according to Wharton prof Mark Duggan. And while depression may wind up costing us mid-rangers years off our lives, those over 65 actually hang on longer when economic times are tough. Why? The Wellesley researchers say the lack of jobs pushes workers into normally unattractive nursing-home positions, improving the care that residents receive. At least that’s something to look forward to if the numbers don’t improve.

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