More Generous Unemployment Benefits Lead To Lower Suicide Rates

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Six months after Congress gave up on providing long-term unemployment benefits to job seekers who have exhausted their state-level unemployment insurance systems, new research shows that less generous unemployment support systems are connected to higher suicide rates.

States that offer higher levels of replacement income for residents who are looking for work but unable to find a job experience significantly lower suicide rates than less generous states, according to a study by two London School of Economics researchers and a University of California San Francisco epidemiologist. Suicide rates have long been known to correlate with economic conditions and the unemployment rate, but the new research finds that higher unemployment insurance payments dull the connection between economic factors and suicide.

The research looked at 40 years of data on unemployment insurance systems in the United States, which are federally funded but administered by the states with varying rules about eligibility and the size of insurance payments to job seekers. “If the unemployment rate increases, having better benefits is going to buffer the effect,” lead author Jonathan Cylus told the Huffington Post, adding that suicide is only the easiest to measure out of the many different negative mental health impacts that being unemployed has on a person. “If there’s a small effect on suicides, there’s probably a substantial effect across the board,” he said.

The mental health benefits of providing a buffer to out-of-work people provide further evidence that such programs are a net benefit for society rather than a net cost. Unemployment insurance has long been understood to provide more economic benefits than what it costs to administer and pay out, and it ranks among the most efficient forms of economic stimulus that the government has at its disposal.

Yet despite these reasons to believe the jobless aid is broadly beneficial, millions of Americans who want to work but can’t find a job have been left to fend for themselves throughout the first half of 2014. The compromise that ended the government shutdown back in December did not provide continued funding for the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) system, which is the last resort for job seekers who have exhausted the six months of aid that state-level unemployment benefits provide. Democrats agreed to that deal and said they would double back to fix and reinstate EUC, but the program ended just after Christmas Day.

More than three months passed before the Senate announced a short-term compromise that would have temporarily reinstated the program. House Republicans refused to take it up. More than 4 million workers and children were already going without the program at that time, and estimates earlier this year found that about 72,000 unemployed people exhaust their state benefits each week. With conservatives who oppose almost all forms of government assistance to jobless people blocking EUC reinstatement, the millions of people who would be eligible for the program are having to fend for themselves — and the total cost to states from the lost economic activity that comes with cutting off benefits is continuing to grow.