The unemployment rate has topped 10% for the first time in a
quarter-century. More than one in six adults are unemployed or
underemployed, the most since the Great Depression.
By any measure this is troubling, but the long-term effects of
unemployment are more devastating than most Americans grasp. Economists
warn that high unemployment may persist for years.
Misery, it turns out, doesn't love company. Distressing new research
shows that unemployment fosters social isolation not just for the
unemployed but also for their still-employed neighbors. Moreover, the
negative consequences last much longer than the unemployment itself.
Policymakers have focused on short-term help for the jobless, but they
must address these longer-term community effects, too.
Recent studies confirm the results of research during the Great
Depression— unemployment badly frays a person's ties with his
community, sometimes permanently. After careful analysis of 20 years of
monthly surveys tracking Americans' social and political habits, our
colleague Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin has found that
unemployed Americans are significantly less involved in their
communities than their employed demographic twins. The jobless are less
likely to vote, petition, march, write letters to editors, or even
volunteer. They attend fewer meetings and serve less frequently as
leaders in local organizations. Moreover, sociologist Cristobal Young's
research finds that the unemployed spend most of their increased free
These negative social consequences outlast the unemployment itself.
Tracking Wisconsin 1957 high school graduates, sociologists Jennie
Brand and Sarah Burgard found that in contrast to comparable classmates
who were never unemployed, graduates who lost jobs, even briefly and
early in their careers, joined community groups less and volunteered considerably less over their entire lives.
And economist Andrew Clark, psychologist Richard Lucas and others found
that, unlike almost any other traumatic life event, joblessness results
in permanently lower levels of life satisfaction, even if the jobless later find jobs.
Equally disturbing, high unemployment rates reduce the social and
civic involvement even of those still employed. Lim has found that
Americans with jobs who live in states with high unemployment are less
civically engaged than workers elsewhere. In fact, most of the civic
decay in hard-hit communities is likely due not to the jobless dropping
out, but to their still-employed neighbors dropping out.
Moreover, beyond civic disengagement, places with higher joblessness
have more pervasive violence and crimes against property. They have
more fragile families with harsher parenting, and higher rates of
mental disorder and psychological distress among both the unemployed
and the employed. These social consequences are a powerful aftershock
to communities already reeling economically.
What might explain the civic withdrawal during recessions? The
jobless shun socializing, shamed that their work was deemed expendable.
Economic depression breeds psychological depression. The unemployed may
feel that their employer has broken an implicit social contract,
deflating any impulse to help others. Where unemployment is high, those
still hanging onto their jobs might work harder for fear of further
layoffs, thus crowding out time for civic engagement. Above all, in
afflicted communities, the contagion of psychic depression and social
isolation spreads more rapidly than joblessness itself.
What to do?
The lasting social consequences of unemployment demand remedy. President Obama has extended individual unemployment benefits.These
new findings call for special aid to communities with high and
persistent unemployment. Government and business should ensure that
unemployment is a last cost-cutting move, not the first.
Millions of employed Americans are silently thankful that the sword
of Damocles has not yet fallen on them. Meanwhile, they and their
leaders overlook the fact that unemployment is causing long-run social
disintegration in their communities. Albert Camus was right: “Without work, all life goes rotten.”
Thomas H. Sander is executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, at Harvard Kennedy School. Robert
D. Putnam is Peter & Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at
Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of the forthcoming American Grace: The Changing Role of Religion in America.