This common problem could lead to an early death

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Back in 2018, during a segment on TODAY in honor of National Suicide Prevention Month, clinical therapist Nancy Nettles recalled how accumulative debt contributed to her struggle with depression.

“I had lost my job. I had been evicted for the first time and my stuff was laying on the sidewalk,” Nettles said. “Living out of your car, in a city you don’t know with two kids. I couldn’t see a way out. I could not see a way out.”

After a year of homelessness, she attempted to take her own life but survived.

Since then, Nettles has become an advocate for mental health awareness and a prelude to the economic crisis currently displacing communities all across the country.

In the US, debt, at once common and crippling, has been deteriorating generations since World War II.

This may be why academicians are beginning to appreciate financial stability as a reliable determinant of one’s overall health.

Recently, researchers at the University of Colorado teamed up with Federal Reserve Economist, M.Melinda Pitts to determine the impact insolvency has on mortality rates.

To do so, the team reviewed nearly 170,000 credit reports from the Federal Reserve’s Consumer Credit Panel. The nationally representative sample accounts for region, age, credit data, and all deaths that occurred between 1999 and 2016. The findings were published in a paper titled, “Killer Debt: The Impact Of Debt On Mortality.

According to the authors, delinquent debt shares a robust association with early death.

The mechanisms are varied, but the authors note that financial insecurity appears to induce pessimistic outlooks, which in turn leads to poor nutrition and increased substance use. The same was theorized with respect to reduced health-care access and adherence to medical treatment plans.

The inverse also proved to be credible. In a previously conducted study referenced in the new paper, the introduction of macroeconomic policies yielded long-term public health benefits in several states.

For instance, a 10% exposure to the 2006 health insurance expansion in Massachusetts led to improved credit scores by an average of 3.4 points among residents.

“This study analyzes the effect of individual finances (specifically creditworthiness and severely delinquent debt) on mortality risk. A large (approximately 170,000 individuals) subsample of a quarterly
panel data set of individual credit reports is utilized in an instrumental variables design,” the authors wrote in the report. “The possibility
of the reverse causality of bad health causing debt and death is removed by instrumenting for individual finances post 2011 using the exposure to the housing crisis based on their 2005 residence. Worsening creditworthiness and increases in severely delinquent debt are found to lead to increases in individual mortality risk. This result has implications for the benefit of policies such as the social safety net, which aims to protect individual finances, by adding reduced mortality to the benefit of any intervention.”

Debt isn’t just sending us to the grave earlier and earlier, it’s also augmenting the way in which we live. This is especially true for Millennials—the generation reared on the importance of college education and molded by the devastating recession of 2008.

“Millennials are marrying at lower rates than previous generations. Only 26 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 32 were married in 2013, compared to 36 percent in 1997 and 48 percent in 1980. At the same time, Millennials possess more debt, poverty, unemployment and lower personal wealth and income than their parents and grandparents did at their age,” The Women in the Housing & Real Estate Ecosystem reports.

College debt appears to be at the root of this particular trend. According to recent research by the folks over at Chegg.org, one in three borrowers default on other bills so that they don’t default on their student loans.

“They’re forced to prioritize student debt over every other bill because it’s the only bill you can’t write off. You cannot declare bankruptcy in it,” explained president and CEO of Chegg, Dan Rosensweig to the Hill. “Most young people, when they go into businesses, take the health plan that has the lowest amount of money that they have to pay in advance. When they get sick they have the highest amount of copay and they can’t afford it because they have to pay off their college debt. That stress adds to them.”

This prioritizing ignites a chain reaction of stunted aspirations. Despite occupying a sizeable chunk of the workforce and being chiefly career-minded, Millenial underemployment has been skyrocketing for the last five years. Alongside suicide rates.

“Jobs are a source of meaning in our lives,” Cheryl Fulton, a professor in the counseling program at Texas State University explained. “So if you don’t have a job or are underemployed, you’re not deriving that satisfaction that comes from the meaning and purpose a job provides.”

Limited access to future credit and wealth bearing assets means the American dream for most is a fragmented one. Every traditional milestone is obscured by a cloud of collectors. The same cloud has been precipitating hail on an already precarious situation.

The national debt crisis and early mortality rates

Sixty-nine percent of all U.S. households evidence some kind of debt.

Collectively, Americans shoulder $4 trillion in personal debt and about $9.4 trillion in mortgage debt.

Participants recorded in the Consumer Credit panel who were able to reduce their debt in a quarter and increase their credit scores by at least 100 points, concurrently improved their mortality risk by 4% the following quarter.

Meanwhile, participants who went from having zero debt in a quarter to any severely delinquent debt displayed a 5% increase in dying.

“As the debt burden of Americans has increased in recent decades, and the depth of recessions and involvement of financial and real estate markets in these economic downturns has intensified, this paper sheds light on the extent to which macroeconomic fluctuations that increased household debt may have adversely influenced individual health,” the authors of Killer Debt: The Impact Of Debt On Mortalitycontinued. “It seems clear that debt resulting from a financial crisis has lasting effects on health that are substantial enough to increase mortality rates.”

This is demonstrated squarely during the pandemic, given its destruction asymmetrically impacts lower class citizens and those with limited access to health care and quality food.

The COVID-19 crisis additionally highlights how vague debt is discussed among the chattering class. No matter who’s in office or what radioactive monster is attacking a town hall, debt will be impacted for the better or worse. Except it only actually gets worse.

It’s this amorphous evil that pits everyone against each other even though everyone is hindered by it. Squabbling over which class endures the most damage on this front is like ranking bed cots in a hospice.

A recent paper co-authored by a team of researchers at Oregon State University revealed that since the start of commercial shutdowns, 77% of low-to-moderate income U.S. households have fallen beneath the asset poverty line.

Although the exact determinants change nation to nation, asset poverty denotes the resources (savings, durable assets, etc.) that allow an individual to cover three months’ worth of living expenses without income.

That’s a huge chunk of the population gearing up to weather a mercurial job market ahead of a high-stakes election and a potential second round of lockdowns.

In light of factors like these, the authors of the new report are confident that economic policies need to be initiated with public health statistics in mind.

“Taken as a whole, our results imply that financial policies are health policies: the effect of individual finances on mortality is non-trivial,” the authors concluded. This extends to macro-oriented policies as well, in particular any program that improves individual finances, such components of the social safety net. For example, recent studies have shown that public health insurance expansions include sizable improvements in the financial well-being of those affected.”