The economic effects of the Great Recession have been easy to see: a stock market crash, a sickening drop in home values and household wealth, and the throbbing pain of persistent unemployment.
But a deep recession does more than economic damage. When short-term unemployment turns into long-term unemployment, as it has in this recession to a level unseen since the 1930s, rates of depression (the psychiatric kind) increase, anxiety rises, and behavior changes in ways both expected and unexpected.
Take birthrates, for example. They have fallen during the past two years, most sharply in states with high unemployment and mortgage-foreclosure rates such as California and Arizona. That's not surprising; couples who are worried about keeping their jobs and their houses are likely to hesitate before expanding their families.
But here's something more surprising: As the recession deepens, participation in civic activities — community organizations, volunteer groups, even church attendance and social clubs — is likely to drop. Sociologists once assumed that during hard times people would naturally band together, if only to protest their plight or to give one another solace. It turns out that the opposite is true: Economic distress causes people to withdraw.
Though a few political movements, such as the "tea party," may have been invigorated by the downturn, more broad-based civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters have seen their membership drop.
Why does civic participation drop during hard times? Jennie Brand of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the ripple effect of unemployment among families in Wisconsin, and she says there are several reasons: People who lose their jobs feel depressed. They sometimes feel ashamed of their financial troubles. They lose some of their trust in society. And some of them move to new communities where they have no ties.
Brand's most important finding is that the social and psychological effects of unemployment can be lifelong, even if the economic distress is only transient.
"People who lost their jobs, even once, were roughly 30 percent less likely to participate in community activities, and that lasted through their lives," she said of her Wisconsin study. "Twenty years later, they were still less likely to participate."
A study just released by the Pew Research Center suggests that if this recession has a similar effect, the impact on American society could be deep and long.
In a Pew poll, more than half of all adults in the labor force said they have lost a job or suffered a reduction in income because of the recession. Fewer than half the respondents said they expect their children to live better than they do — a significant expression of long-term pessimism.
But the poll also suggests that some people are more pessimistic than others. Younger respondents appeared more confident in the future than their parents. Blacks and Latinos were more optimistic than whites, even though they suffered more from unemployment and loss of household wealth (on a percentage basis). The most pessimistic group was middle-aged, middle-class whites — who presumably lost the most wealth in home values and retirement funds and have the least time to make it up.
The enduring impact of a recession depends on how deep and long it is. "What made the Great Depression so great?" asked William Galston of the Brookings Institution. "Depth and duration. Garden-variety recessions have had no permanent effect on public consciousness, but the Great Depression shaped a generation."
This recession already has been more than garden-variety. The longer it lasts, the deeper and broader the scars will be.