The authors investigate three hypotheses on the influence of labor market deregulation, decommodification, and investment in active labor market policies on the employment of chronically ill and disabled people. The study explores the interaction between employment, chronic illness, and educational level for men and women in Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, countries with advanced social welfare systems and universal health care but with varying types of active and passive labor market policies. People with chronic illness were found to fare better in employment terms in the Nordic countries than in Canada or the United Kingdom. Their employment chances also varied by educational level and country. The employment impact of having both chronic illness and low education was not just additive but synergistic. This amplification was strongest for British men and women, Norwegian men, and Danish women. Hypotheses on the disincentive effects of tighter employment regulation or more generous welfare benefits were not supported. The hypothesis that greater investments in active labor market policies may improve the employment of chronically ill people was partially supported. Attention must be paid to the differential impact of macro-level policies on the labor market participation of chronically ill and disabled people with low education, a group facing multiple barriers to gaining employment.
Low employment rates of chronically ill and disabled people are of serious concern. Being out of work increases the risk of poverty and social exclusion, which may further damage the health of these groups, exacerbating health inequalities. Macro-level policies have a potentially tremendous impact on their employment chances, and these influences urgently need to be understood as the current economic crisis intensifies. In Part I of this two-part study, the authors examine employment trends for people who report a chronic illness or disability, by gender and educational level, in Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in the context of economic booms and busts and deindustrialization. People with the double burden of chronic illness and low education have become increasingly marginalized from the labor market. Deindustrialization may have played a part in this process. In addition, periods of high unemployment have sparked a downward trend in employment for already marginalized groups who did not feel the benefits when the economy improved. Norway and Sweden have been better able to protect the employment of these groups than the United Kingdom and Canada. These contextual differences suggest that other macro-level factors, such as active and passive labor market polices, may be important, as examined in part II.
This study compares employment rates among men and women with and without chronic illness in the contrasting policy environments of Britain and Sweden, through analysis of household surveys for 1979-1995. Professional and managerial groups were winners in both countries, including during recession. By the 1990s, employment rates for healthy Swedish women were uniformly high across the social groups and almost comparable with those of their male counterparts; rates for women and men with a chronic illness were also comparable, albeit at a lower overall rate. The greatest losers were male and female unskilled manual workers in Britain. British women with a chronic illness in the 1990s had less than half the employment rates of healthy women. Such social inequalities were much smaller and less consistent in Sweden, where the impact of illness was softened for all social groups. In Britain, workless men tended to be classed as unemployed or permanently sick, while workless women were more likely to be classed as looking after home/family. Lesser differences were seen in Sweden. No evidence was found to support the hypothesis that women in general, and the less skilled and sick in particular, would be the winners in a more flexible, less regulated labor market-quite the reverse.