The Great Depression showed that when society gets poorer the social impacts can be huge – there was a suicide spike in Britain and a documented decline in civic engagement in many countries right round the world.
That was the 1930s – we’re a whole lot richer today, even after the recent big dip. You might hope that this extra wealth, combined with the welfare state, would have prevented economic slide from turning into social catastophe.
Yet look at what happened to volunteering rates after 2008. This collapse of kindness was not restricted to organised do-gooding: the average time citizens spent helping friends and neighbours informally fell away just as rapidly.
Why should a passing economic storm unleash this sort of ‘social recession’? Here’s a clue. Volunteering dropped away faster in poor neighbourhoods.
The slump came after 30 years in which inequality had run out of control.
And when recession stuck, unemployment did not rise equally everywhere, but hit the unschooled harder than college graduates…
… and black people harder than white people. Northerners, youngsters and every other poorer group was also clobbered harder.
What’s more, the poor suffered disproportionately from the new phenomenon of ‘underemployment’, with many workers suddenly finding themselves struggling to get sufficient hours.
All this bred an anxiety in those most exposed to the recession, straining the social fabric, damaging family life and individual well-being, and turning depressed regions into suicide blackspots.
But now that the economy is finally picking up, won’t that fix the social slump too?
No. In previous downturns, people who got laid off in their 30s were less civically engaged in their 40s, and that gap didn’t shrink but actually grew as they continued to age.
So the victims need help for years yet, but instead their hard times are set to drag on right into the recovery, thanks to a policy of austerity, which is translating benefit cuts into rising poverty rates.
Can anything be done? It could, but it’s going to have to involve looking not just at how we get the economy growing again, but how we divide its rewards.