In the 2015 movie The Big Short, the character of Ben Rickert, played by Brad Pitt, makes the following statement to two investment bankers.

If we're right (about the housing market collapsing), people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?

(Wikiquote source if the video gets taken down)

I've never heard this statistic before, and I would normally be disinclined to believe it as something made up by a movie. However, The Big Short seems to go out of its way to be as factually accurate as possible, with scenes that cut away from the story entirely to explain economic principles to the watcher.

Since there is not a source for the fact presented in the movie but the movie tries to be accurate, I have to ask if this is literally accurate, if there is a context that needs to be injected, or if it was made up for the purposes of the movie.

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    And when it goes back down, they come back as zombies, right? – PoloHoleSet Aug 22 '17 at 21:40
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    The data probably goes back to work by Harvey Brenner in the 1970s. It has been challenged, particularly by C. Ruhm. If you can, listen to a BBC More or Less radio clip or read the first 12 introductory pages of a study from Martin Nilsson and Anette Brose Olsen - the rest of their paper finds a positive association between unemployment and mortality but a lower coefficient – Henry Aug 23 '17 at 8:15

This appears to be somewhat true. Death rates increase when you lose your job, but 40,000 people per year is an order of magnitude higher than my estimate.

This Quora question answers an identical question and concludes that a 1% increase in unemployment results in about 1,500 excess deaths per year in America. My answer follows the same logic as the Quora answer. I have checked his sources, but I am forced to find my own data for mortality rates because his link is broken.

There are roughly 162 million workers in the US, therefore a 1% increase in unemployment corresponds to 1.62 million workers losing their jobs. According to this CDC data, for every 100,000 people aged 25-64 roughly 400 of them will die in a given year. That number comes from averaging the mortality rates for the age groups I assume make up most of the labor force. Therefore, for a given sample of 1.62 million working age people, we expect 6400 of them to die in a given year. This meta-analysis indicates that your risk of death increases by 63% when you lose your job. This means that 10,000 people will die instead of 6400, an increase of 4000 Americans per year. In order for this claim to be true, the increased death rate would have to be 630% instead of 63%.

The Quora answerer looked at mostly the same data I did, and his answer is of the same order of magnitude as mine. We both make some simplifying assumptions to get to an answer, and I believe his numbers about as much as mine. Take both with a grain of salt.

As a further warning to take this logic with a grain of salt, the meta analysis has a pretty detailed discussion of confounding factors.

Many researchers continue to argue that the unemployment-mortality association is spurious. These scholars argue that health selection into unemployment operates through health behavior variables rather than in a direct manner (i.e. the “latent sickness hypothesis”) (Jusot et al., 2008).

In more plain English, people with unhealthy behaviors may be more likely to lose their jobs; Alcoholism can get you fired and lead to an early grave, but getting fired wasn't what killed you.

A third reason to take this with a grain of salt is that when unemployment increases, underemployment increases as well. This logic may exclude some number of people who die after they take two crappy part time jobs after they lose their one good job. Those people are not counted in the U3 unemployment rate. If your child or spouse dies after you lose your job and your health insurance, that death would also not be counted.

Summary: A 1% increase in unemployment results in a few thousand excess deaths. I am uncertain how many thousand exactly.

  • I have a big problem with your logic here. The death rate for people 25-64 and working people 25-64 would be different. The latter category would not include anyone too sick to work--a population that obviously has a higher death rate. – Loren Pechtel Aug 24 '17 at 1:18
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    @LorenPechtel Unemployment stats are based on people who could be working and want to be working, but are not. It excludes retirees, homemakers and people who are too sick to work. The meta-analysis presumably reviewed papers with multiple definitions of unemployment, but I would assume that a majority of them do not count people too sick to work. – BobTheAverage Aug 24 '17 at 15:57
  • Unemployment stats, but you're comparing working people to all people of the same age--that includes those too sick to work. – Loren Pechtel Aug 25 '17 at 1:17
  • Although the claim doesn't say, "per year"... – colmde Apr 16 '18 at 13:44

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