Research / BFI Working PaperFeb 05, 2024

Lives vs. Livelihoods: The Impact of the Great Recession on Mortality and Welfare

Amy Finkelstein, Matthew J. Notowidigdo, Frank Schilbach, Jonathan Zhang

We leverage spatial variation in the severity of the Great Recession across the United States to examine its impact on mortality and to explore implications for the welfare consequences of recessions. We estimate that an increase in the unemployment rate of the magnitude of the Great Recession reduces the average, annual age-adjusted mortality rate by 2.3 percent, with effects persisting for at least 10 years. Mortality reductions appear across causes of death and are concentrated in the half of the population with a high school degree or less. We estimate similar percentage reductions in mortality at all ages, with declines in elderly mortality thus responsible for about three-quarters of the total mortality reduction. Recession-induced mortality declines are driven primarily by external effects of reduced aggregate economic activity on mortality, and recession-induced reductions in air pollution appear to be a quantitatively important mechanism. Incorporating our estimates of pro-cyclical mortality into a standard macroeconomics framework substantially reduces the welfare costs of recessions, particularly for people with less education, and at older ages where they may even be welfare-improving.

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