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Welfare May Be 'Sick'-fare

Recipients feel sicker than other jobless people, says study

FRIDAY, Oct. 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Welfare is unlikely to boost anyone's self esteem, and a new study contends its effects on the body aren't positive either.

Looking over an array of international research, a New York professor finds that people who get welfare assistance feel sicker than others, even those who are get unemployment checks. "It could be that the type of benefits that people receive has an impact on mental health," says study author Eunice Rodriguez, professor of policy analysis at Cornell University.

While there's no question that unemployment and illness are linked, researchers aren't quite sure how they're connected, Rodriguez says. "It works both ways. A number of people get unemployed because they get sick. And people who are unemployed are exposed to stress. There's a psychological component, as well."

Rodriguez looked at the results of studies of nearly 31,500 people in three Western countries. Citizens from Germany and the United Kingdom were surveyed from 1991-1993, and U.S. residents from 1985-1987. Those surveyed described their health on a five-point scale in Germany and the United Kingdom and a four-point scale in the United States.

The findings appear in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

In all three countries, people on welfare were more likely to report poor health than people receiving unemployment benefits, even when the study adjusted for previous health, education and household income.

In the United States, for example, the average person on welfare rated his or her health at 2.19 on a scale of one to four, while the average of those getting unemployment benefits was 2.14. The higher the number, the worse the person thought his health was.

Psychological factors could contribute to the difference, Rodriguez says. "It's not only the amount of benefits that they get, but also how they perceive it -- as getting charity and being blamed for the situation or getting benefits that are perceived as entitlement. In that case, people don't feel they are to blame."

Rodriguez says politicians should realize that welfare may stigmatize those who get it and end up hurting their health. "We have to really monitor things to make sure that the changes that are going on will not have an effect on the health of these people. In the long run, that may be more expensive for taxpayers."

But another expert cautions that the Germans, Britons and Americans surveyed may not have been quite as sick as they thought they were. Other research "shows that people's global ratings of health are affected by other variables than actual physical health, above all by depression," says Stanislav Kasl, professor of epidemiology at Yale University.

While he says Rodriguez's study is well done, its limitations should be taken into account.

What To Do

Learn about how many welfare recipients are in your state from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an editorial about welfare reform at the age of 5.

SOURCES: Interviews with Eunice Rodriguez, Ph.D., professor of public policy, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Stanislav Kasl, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; September 2001 American Journal of Public Health
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