- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In his occasional messages to Americans trying to put a happy face on the economy, President Obama has been missing an opportunity. He should consult Chris Ruhm, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, whose study of economic downtowns for the past 20 years found that a deteriorating economy inspires people to improve their health. In short, as the March issue of CFO magazine reported, Ruhm’s research shows hard times can actually be good for you.

How so? Ruhm found that “people actually eat healthier, overall, during a recession, and they are less likely to be obese,” possibly because they eat out less frequently. He also said people exercise more when times are hard because they have more time and, feeling more powerless, want to take control of other areas of their life, “so you take steps to get healthier.” He told CFO magazine that a one percent increase in the unemployment rate reduces mortality rates by half a percent, with heart attacks decreasing by slightly less than a half a percent. Traffic deaths decline by 3 percent because fewer people are commuting and drinking is down. And there are fewer smokers, which in the long term has a big impact on mortality rates (President Obama, a loathsome smoker, please note).

Things just get better and better. In a recession, the professor found, deaths from flu and pneumonia decline, as do cases of acute medical conditions like back problems that may be stress-related. Speaking of stress, people are more likely to die of heart attacks on Monday mornings than at any other time, which suggests a connection to work.

Actually, there’s a downside. Asked by CFO about suicide rates, Ruhm said that “if you study death certificates, there is pretty clear evidence that as the economy weakens, suicides increase. Various non-psychotic mental disorders also go up. So we’re healthier physically, but not necessarily mentally.”

If the Obama administration spin doctors do this right, “Happy Days Are Here Again” will be the Obama theme song, just as it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, whose programs were unsuccessful in ending the Depression for eight years, from the moment he took office until the onset of World War II. (Unemployment from 1933 through 1940 was never lower than 14.3 percent, and most years was in the high teens or low 20s in percentage of the civilian labor force). On second thought, maybe another tune would be better.

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