Race, Unemployment, and Mental Health in the USA

smooth rocks stacked in a pile

Social scientists have long suggested a connection between unemployment and mental health.

However, the direction of causation is unclear: Poor mental health can lead to joblessness, highlighting the challenge of generating an accurate estimate of the impact of unemployment on mental health. In addition, virtually all of these studies use either self-reported measures of mental health or broad measures of emotional well-being such as self-esteem or constructs of general emotional health which are less than ideal.

A shortcoming in the existing literature is that scholars have yet to examine whether race explains the degree that unemployment causes psychological distress. This paper uses measures of mental health to estimate the link between these two factors for both blacks and whites.

Key Findings

  • White workers who experienced short-term unemployment during the past year are 5.6 percentage points more likely to suffer from psychological distress than comparable whites who were employed over the past 12 months.
  • Among the subsample of resilient persons—those with no prior history of poor mental health—blacks who experience short-term unemployment are more likely to suffer from psychological distress than whites who also endured short-term unemployment.
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