Sum: ‘It’s a male depression in Rhode Island,’ not a recession

Andrew Sum

The scale of job losses among men in Rhode Island over the last four years has created depression-level conditions in the state, a leading labor economist said Tuesday.

The share of male Rhode Islanders ages 16 and up either working or looking for work dropped from 71.3% in 2007 to 61.4% in the first eight months of this year, according to an analysis of U.S. Labor Department data done for by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

The stunning 10-percentage-point drop was by far the worst in New England and one of the two worst in the United States, said Andrew Sum, the center’s director and an economics professor at Northeastern. The share of Rhode Island men in the labor force is now at the lowest level since records began in 1976.

“You would have to call that a depression,” Sum told “There’s no other description you can give that, when you have a 10-point drop in four years. It’s a male depression in Rhode Island.”

“I don’t use that word lightly,” he added. “But that’s not a recession – it’s a depression.”

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the share of all individuals in the labor force – known as the employment-population ratio – fell by an estimated 15 points, Sum said. “We’ve never had a 10-point drop at anytime since then in the U.S.,” with the biggest being a 4.5-point decline after the 2001 recession, he said.

The employment-population ratio among women 16 and older in Rhode Island has fallen by four points since 2007 to 56.4%, less than half as large a decline as among men.

“For women, you’d call that a recession; for men, you have to call it a depression,” Sum said.

The jobs crisis in Rhode Island, particularly among men, is likely to have far-reaching effects as more individuals drop out of the labor force and more husbands need their wives to go back to work to support their families, Sum said. Long-term unemployment has also been found to contribute to depression and other mental-health issues.

Sum suggested Congress should act swiftly to pass President Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act, which he said would include significant spending on infrastructure projects that would create jobs for men who’ve lost work in hard-hit industries like construction.

Lawmakers erred by including too little infrastructure spending in the original 2009 stimulus while providing funding for education and certain tax cuts that weren’t targeted at job creation, he said.

(photo: Lauren McFalls/Northeastern University)

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