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Suicides Among the Unemployed: A National Humiliation

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If you haven't been following Annie Lowrey's stories about chronic joblessness at the Washington Independent, you should. Today she has a story titled, simply, "Death and Joblessness." It is about the apparent spike in suicides occurring in some places scarred by the economic crisis:

So how many suicides are associated with the recession? Nobody knows, not yet. The statistics lag about three years, so the official Center for Disease Control numbers still predate the financial crisis. Right now, therefore, the reports remain anecdotal.

But looking at individual counties' or cities' data, there are ominous signs of a real spike. Some counties show no change. Others show dramatic climbs. In rural Elkhart County, Ind., where the unemployment rate is 13.7 percent, there were nearly 40 percent more suicides in 2009 than in a normal year. In Macomb County, Mich., where the unemployment rate is also 13.7 percent, an average of 81 people per year committed suicide between 1979 and 2006. That climbed to 104 in 2008 and to more than 180 in 2009.

The suicide prevention hotlines also show signs of stress. In Jan. 2007, as the recession started, there were 13,423 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide toll-free hotline. A year later, there were 39,467. In Aug. 2009, the call volume peaked at 57,625.

Elkhart County is not far from my home. I rang doorbells a bit west of there during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Rural Indiana, like many other places, is hurting.

The health impacts of recessions run in many, sometimes surprising directions. We should wait for better data in determining the overall health impacts of severe recession. We know right now that chronic joblessness can bring economic trauma, isolation, and hopelessness that push some of us, or a friend, a colleague, a loved-one past the breaking point. As individuals, we should be attentive to those near us facing economic difficulty. And we must intervene as a society to address the gaping economic wound.

We've been hearing a lot lately, in connection with the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, that the atrocities committed on 9/11 were a national humiliation. I don't see things that way. What is humiliating is the way our nation has failed to mount an effective response to widespread human pain during the worst economic crisis we've faced in decades.

One can find many reasons for the non-response. Many policymakers were caught unaware by the severity and the duration of our predicament. There is no magic bullet here, even if our political leaders had been poised to move more decisively than they were. Concerns about the deficit constrain what we can do. The sclerotic structures of the United States Senate provide undue power to a handful of conservatives and moderates from sparsely populated states that have not borne the worst of this crisis.

It must also be said that the unemployed are a disorganized, politically marginal constituency. The United States Senate is not always sclerotic. You can bet, for example, that we will patch Medicare's Sustainable Growth Rate glitch that enrages medical providers and, ultimately, Medicare recipients. The House and Senate will act because members believe, with good reason, that they might lose their job if they fail to fix this thing. The jobless have much more limited ability to move the levers in Washington, or for that matter, in most statehouses. I wonder how many Senators feel they will pay a genuine political price if unemployment benefits fail to be extended or homes are needlessly foreclosed.

Whatever the reasons, we have failed to act effectively and decisively while millions of our fellow citizens have lost homes, have lost jobs, have seen their unemployment benefits expire. There are related humiliations, too. Today Jonathan Cohn continues his important series on the Bush Administration's inept, day-late and dollar-short response to rebuilding New Orleans.

If you are a progressive reader, you may be especially discouraged because much of the inaction has occurred under a Democratic administration and under Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. This is indeed discouraging. Don't allow disappointment to make you cynical and passive as we approach midterm elections. Republican victories make things much worse.

We progressives have to put our shoulders to the wheel. Millions of people are counting on us to do better.