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A fiscal squeeze might be good for you

Kai Ryssdal Apr 8, 2008

A fiscal squeeze might be good for you

Kai Ryssdal Apr 8, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: $3.60 a gallon’s gonna be the magic number this summer. The Department of Energy said today that’s where gas prices should top out.

Which, if you really think about it, might turn out to be good news, because chances are paying that much will make most of us think twice before we take to the open road. Which’ll mean less traffic, less stress, and probably less pollution, too.

In fact, economist Chris Ruhm at the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s been studying exactly that phenomenon.

Ryssdal: Thanks for being with us.

Chris Ruhm: Thanks. My pleasure

Ryssdal: You know, you’d think that bad economic times would do bad things to your health and to society’s general well-being. You’re telling me that’s not true?

Ruhm: Well, what I’m telling you is that bad economic times are actually good for your health. Now, I’m not saying they’re good for society, but they do turn out to be good for your physical health?

Ryssdal: How so?

Ruhm: What we find is mortality rates of all kinds fall when the economy weakens, so total mortality, vehicle mortality, deaths from heart attacks, various health conditions like back problems become less prevalent and then people behave in a healthier manner, that is they smoke less, they drink less, they’re less likely to be obese.

Ryssdal: Now is that generally just less stress because you don’t have to deal with all the craziness at work?

Ruhm: That may be part what’s going on. There’s also environmental risks like reductions in pollution levels and people have more time, so they might have more time to exercise. Part of it might be an income story too. If you don’t have as much money, you don’t go out to eat as much. When you go out to eat, you tend to eat fatty meals, maybe you drink and smoke, so it could be a combination of factors

Ryssdal: What about everyday things like traffic loads? I mean, if it takes me 15 minutes to get in because people have been laid off, generally a good thing, right?

Ruhm: That’s right, and people drive less. Driving is a risky activity

Ryssdal: Do you have any data on mental health as opposed to physical issues?

Ruhm: A little bit. Mental health is harder to measure and the evidence is much less clear and in fact, it’s quite possible that in bad times, people’s mental health actually worsens. So, for example, we find that suicides increase when times are bad.

Ryssdal: Probably ought to take a step back here and make sure everybody understands we’re not talking about individual episodes of good or bad health. It’s more on a macro scale.

Ruhm: That’s right. This is looking at population-wide averages. Essentially what I was doing is using each state as an experiment, so I was comparing what was happening in one state, say in Massachusetts or Texas, relative to what was going on in other states, so if the Texas economy was weakening at a time when other states’ economies were strengthening, how were, say, mortality rates in Texas changing relative to other states and the result was just very robust, the result that health got better during bad economic times.

Ryssdal: It’s kind of counterintuitive though.

Ruhm: It is to most people and certainly it was not what I initially expected, but there are a number of plausible mechanisms. I might also add there was research over a half a century ago where people looked at mortality rates and found results that were consistent with this and actually couldn’t figure out what was going on and after a number of years just sort of ignored their own results, but actually, there’s been evidence on this for a long time.

Ryssdal: Chris Ruhm is professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Professor, thanks a lot.

Ruhm: Thank you.

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