The Capitalist ‘Virus’ of Unemployment Kills Untold Masses of Workers

by Wally Linder

March, 2020

For decades of recessions and depressions, millions of workers have been sent to an early grave as a direct result of being laid off, probably rivaling any mass killing anywhere on the planet. A 1976 Congressional study linked a 1.4 percent rise in the unemployment rate to 30,000 deaths from strokes, heart and kidney ailments, suicides homicides and cirrhosis of the liver in the five years following those layoffs.

More recent studies show similar results. Researchers from Drexel and the University of Michigan published results in 2014 showing “that job loss is associated with a 73 percent increase in the probability of death – the equivalent of adding 10 years to a persons’s age.” (https://drexel.edu/now/archive/2014/July/Unemployment-Study/) Ironically, during the 2008 recession, there was a small overall decrease in overall mortality which the authors thought was due to a decrease in atmospheric pollution as production slowed. The atmosphere affects everyone, while the unemployed are a minority, explaining the discrepancy, but illustrating the dangers of industrial pollution which capitalism does little to mitigate. Another study published in 2015 showed similar mortality findings.: “In 1990–1992, life expectancy was 4.7 years shorter in high unemployment than in low unemployment areas. In 2006–2010, the life expectancy difference between the lowest and highest unemployment areas decreased to 3.8 years. Heart disease, cancer, homicide, unintentional injuries, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and liver cirrhosis contributed most to the lower life expectancy in high unemployment areas.” (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/scientifica/2016/8290435/). Recently, research by the National Bureau of Economic Reasearch also showed that “As the county unemployment rate increases by one percentage point, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rises by 0.19 (3.6%) and the opioid overdose ED visit rate per 100,000 increases by 0.95 (7.0%)” (https://www.nber.org/papers/w23192). So severe is this problem that it is thought to be the driver of falling life expectancy in the US.

The 1976 Congressional study by the Joint Economic Committee attempted to “estimate the cost in human suffering of people being out of work.” (NY Times, 10/31/76) Every time a plant closes or a boss consolidates an operation or bosses bust strikes and fire strikers or make “mistaken” economic forecasts and then lay off thousands of workers to maintain profits — every time they raise the jobless rate 1.4 percent they are causing the resultant 30,000 deaths. And the 1930s Great Recession’s peak (and doctored) 10 percent unemployment rate meant well over 200,000 deaths — 10 divided by 1.4 = 7 groups of 30,000 each! The report concluded that when unemployment rose 1.4 percent in 1970 (from 3.5 percent to 4.9 percent) it led directly to those 30,000 deaths over the next five years from stress-related ailments, suicide and homicide. Dr. Harvey Brenner of Johns Hopkins University testified that, “The national rate of suicide in the United States can be viewed as an economic indicator,” so close is the link between joblessness and workers’ violent deaths.

The 1976 figures were based on 40 years of statistics from the Great Depression until 1973 in New York, California and Massachusetts, and were similar to results from England, Wales and Sweden. And none of this deals with related effects on the families of jobless workers — malnutrition, mental anguish and sickness.

Infant mortality rates increase dramatically within one to two years of an economic recession. Said Dr. Brenner, “short-term general hospital admissions in the U.S. respond very sharply to adverse changes in the economy, as do mental hospital admissions, for an unbroken period of about 127 years in the U.S.” Death by suicide rises within the first month or two of a recession. Heart disease peaks 3 to 5 years after the start of a recession.

Also not included are workers killed on the job in industrial “accidents” (about 100,000 a year) like the recent deaths of immigrant construction workers in New York City due to bosses’ stinting on safety. Nor does it include millions made sick by their working conditions (some terminally, as in “cancer alley” in northeastern New Jersey). Racist discrimination causes much of this human suffering to have at least double the effect on black and Latin workers whose jobless rates are twice that of white workers.

Only War Solves the Unemployment Problem

The only time full employment existed in the U.S. occurred during World War II when 14 million were drafted into the military, one way the ruling class “solved” the jobless rate of the Great Depression. Through imperialist wars and unemployment, capitalism exterminates large sections of the working class. Millions of workers have fought these evils tooth and nail, especially during the Great Depression, organizing masses against these rulers’ attacks, many times led by communists. Interestingly, when tens of millions worldwide were unemployed during the 1930s’ Depression, the one place on earth that had full employment was the communist-led Soviet Union.

What We Must Do

But much as the working class has made gains in huge fights for reforms, capitalist unemployment marches on, wiping out these gains at the first opportunity. The bosses hold state power and wield it whenever they seek to maintain their profit system. The only way workers can end this violence against our class is to overthrow the rulers’ state and establish a society run by and for workers, without profits and bosses and their racist and sexist tools.


Deaths From 1970-1975 Linked to a 1.4% increase in the unemployment rate in 1970

Strokes, Heart and Kidney Ailments…26,440

Suicides…………………………………. 1,540

Homicides………………………………. 1,740

Cirrhosis of the liver……………………    870

Total……………………………………..30,590

(Congressional Joint Economic Committee study, published Oct. 30, 1976)

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