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The Psychological Impact of Unemployment and Joblessness


Goldsmith, Arthur H.; Veum, Jonathan R.; & Darity, William A., Jr. (1996). The Psychological Impact of Unemployment and Joblessness. Journal of Socio-Economics, 25(3), 333-358.


Economists have identified two principal adverse effects of unemployment. One is the output foregone that could have been produced if unemployed workers had been productively employed. The second is the psychological damage suffered by unemployed workers and their families. Psychologists have offered theories to explain how experiences such as Joblessness may lead to a deterioration in mental health. They also have designed and validated survey instruments capable of measuring various aspects of emotional health. Unfortunately, their efforts to document the psychological impact of unemployment have been plagued by data limitations, while economists largely have ignored this task. The purpose of this study is three-fold. First, we discuss why unemployment and Joblessness are likely to influence an individual's perception of personal efficacy, locus of control, and hence psychological well-being. Second, we discuss and critique existing efforts to examine the relationship between labor force experiences and locus of control. Third, we investigate the relationship between Joblessness and its component parts—unemployment and dropping out of the labor force—on personal locus of control, using observations from the NLSY and an alternative methodological framework. The NLSY is a longitudinal data set that contains detailed information on the personal characteristics of individuals in the sample, their labor force experiences and a specific personal locus of control. In discussing the results we also attempt to shed some new light on the debate between Clark and Summers (1979) and Flinn and Heckman (1982, 1983) over the question of whether being out of the labor force and being unemployed should be thought of as distinct states. We add further insight into this issue by examining whether there are psychological differences, as measured by locus of control, between otherwise comparable members of these two groups. Finally, we reconsider the Ellwood and Ruhm exchange over whether joblessness and unemployment lead to “psychological” scarring. We find that labor force experiences fail to influence personal locus of control for male youths. There is evidence, however, that perception of personal efficacy is altered by joblessness among young women. As the duration of a current unemployment spell lengthens, the likelihood of holding beliefs of personal efficacy decline for young women. There is also some evidence of scarring among women. For females who in the past have spent time both unemployed and out of the labor force, the greater the duration of their joblessness the more likely is a reduction in feelings of personal efficacy and more aggravated one's self-perception of helplessness. We also offer psychological evidence on the relative emotional well-being of the unemployed and labor force drop outs that largely supports the position of Clark and Summers that these conditions are largely indistinguishable.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Journal of Socio-Economics


Goldsmith, Arthur H.
Veum, Jonathan R.
Darity, William A., Jr.