The Great Recession and Health: People, Populations, and Disparities

Two research traditions have evolved to assess links between recessions and health, with seemingly divergent findings. Aggregate-level studies generally find that mortality rates decline during recessionary periods. By contrast, individual-level studies generally find that events that frequently occur during recessions, like job loss, unemployment, and material hardship, carry negative health consequences. We comprehensively review evidence from these two bodies of research, illustrate key findings, and show how the different mechanisms can operate in parallel. We also outline some of the limitations of the extant evidence, discuss studies emerging to address these limits and directions for future research, and provide brief empirical examples to illustrate some of these limits and directions using the Health and Retirement Study and the Michigan Recession and Recovery Study. Our review emphasizes the importance of considering both the aggregate- and individual-level associations when evaluating the likely short- and longer-term consequences of the Great Recession for health and health disparities.