Higher US unemployment rates during the Great Recession led to poorer self-reported health and increased levels of smoking and drug use among mothers. Disadvantaged mothers – black and Hispanic, low educated and unmarried – experienced greater health deteriorations than advantaged mothers – white, married and college educated.

These are the central findings of research by Janet Currie, Valentina Duque and Irwin Garfinkel, published in the November 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Their study analyses panel data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, which make it possible to observe mothers at different points in time. They find that a one percentage point rise in the local area unemployment rate:

· Is associated with a decrease in mothers'' probability of experiencing ''excellent'' or ''very good'' overall health of 4.3%.

· Is associated with increases in mothers smoking or using drugs of 5.1% and 15.2%, respectively.

· Leads to reductions in the fraction of African-American reporting ''excellent'' or ''very good'' health (by 9.1%) and increases in the probability that these women use drugs (by 10.1%). Hispanic women experience a higher probability of being depressed by 18.2%.

· Leads to reductions in obesity among white women (by 4.5%) and fewer reports of feelings of depression (by 11.1%). But these women are also more likely to binge drink as the economy deteriorates.

· Leads to reductions in overall health and increases in the probability of smoking among unmarried women, while married mothers are less likely to be depressed.

· Leads to reductions in health-related problems among college educated women even though they smoke more. Less educated mothers report lower health status, more health problems and an increase in drug use.


Economic recessions have huge economic and psychological costs for many people, particularly for the most vulnerable. As such, economic crises may have significant impacts on people''s health. Yet while many studies have explored the effects of crisis on people''s health, the evidence is far from clear.

One group of studies has used aggregate-level data to argue that unemployment is actually related to health improvements. These studies have sought to justify this pattern by arguing that people may adopt better health behaviours during recessions, becoming less likely to drink or smoke and having more time to exercise, cook healthy meals and sleep more.

But studies using individual-level data generally show that recessions are bad for people''s health. These studies argue that this may be due to the stress associated with losing a job, reductions in income and wealth or other material hardships. Moreover, some researchers find that during times of high unemployment, individuals are more likely to smoke and binge drink.

The new study is in part motivated by the lack of consensus on how economic recessions affect health. It is also motivated by the fact that most of the previous evidence has been obtained from analysing prime-age men. Women with children constitute an important segment of the population that has been relatively understudied.

This study is also one of the first to use longitudinal data – that is, data that follow the same people over time – and it is the first to focus on the Great Recession that hit the economy in 2007-08, causing a dramatic rise in the unemployment rate.


The authors comment:


''Considering that the unemployment rate during the Great Recession increased from 5% to 10%, our results highlight a widening health gap between mothers in advantaged and disadvantaged families.''

''The widening health gap may have disturbing implications for future disparities between children. A useful extension of our work would be to investigate the short- and long-term impacts of the recession on children''s health.''


''The Great Recession and Mother''s Health'' by Janet Currie, Valentina Duque and Irwin Garfinkel is published in the November 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Janet Currie is at Princeton University. Valentina Duque and Irwin Garfinkel are at Columbia University.