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Losing Jobless Benefits Is Not Only Stressful, It Might Be Harmful To Health

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown millions of Americans out of work — and over the past nine months, up to 20 million have filed for unemployment. Supplemental federal unemployment benefits of $600 per week — a lifeline for many — expired in July and more are set to go away at the end of the year if Congress doesn't act.

But beyond the economic consequences, not having that financial safety net can lead to serious health problems for those affected, according to new research. Dr. Seth Berkowitz, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who co-authored some of that research, says that in extreme cases, it may even contribute to deaths that are not directly caused by the coronavirus itself.

Among people who saw their income disrupted by the pandemic, those getting unemployment insurance "had much lower risk of food insufficiency, much lower risk of missing housing payments, lower depressive symptoms, lower anxiety to symptoms, were less likely to delay care," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"It's incredibly disruptive for people," Berkowitz says. That can be especially true for people with chronic illnesses — diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol — who may no longer be able to afford their medicine, he says.

"All of those get disruptive if you start having to worry about the most basic needs: How do you put food on the table for you and your children? How do you keep a roof over your head if you're so stressed out and anxious and have a lot of depressive symptoms?" Berkowitz adds.

Another recent study makes the case that evictions are tied to an increase in coronavirus cases and deaths. The authors of the study found that the lifting of eviction moratoriums could have resulted in between 365,200 and 502,200 excess coronavirus cases and between 8,900 and 12,500 excess deaths.

Berkowitz says he hopes the emerging research about the connection between health and pandemic assistance can help convince policymakers about the importance of economic relief such as unemployment benefits.

"Both for ongoing pandemic relief, because I think the economic effects of the pandemic will be with us for a while, but also just for long-term unemployment insurance reform," Berkowitz says. "People will lose their jobs through no fault of their own all the time. And so unemployment insurance is really an important part of social insurance."

Can the loss of unemployment insurance kill people?

"I think it's very likely that if you're not able to manage your chronic conditions, that if you're not able to put food on your table, if you're evicted or forced out of your home, that that could result in worsening health," Berkowitz says. "And as an extreme, people could die as a result of not having the resources needed to stay healthy and stay alive."

Nina Kravinsky, Avery Keatley and Dalia Mortada produced and edited the audio version of this story.

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