Social welfare matters: a realist review of when, how, and why unemployment insurance impacts poverty and health

Soc Sci Med. 2015 May:132:88-94. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.03.025. Epub 2015 Mar 14.


The recent global recession and concurrent rise in job loss makes unemployment insurance (UI) increasingly important to smooth patterns of consumption and keep households from experiencing extreme material poverty. In this paper, we undertake a realist review to produce a critical understanding of how and why UI policies impact on poverty and health in different welfare state contexts between 2000 and 2013. We relied on literature and expert interviews to generate an initial theory and set of propositions about how UI might alleviate poverty and mental distress. We then systematically located and synthesized peer-review studies to glean supportive or contradictory evidence for our initial propositions. Poverty and psychological distress, among unemployed and even the employed, are impacted by generosity of UI in terms of eligibility, duration and wage replacement levels. Though unemployment benefits are not intended to compensate fully for a loss of earnings, generous UI programs can moderate harmful consequences of unemployment.

Keywords: Health; Poverty; Realist review; Social protection programs; Unemployment; Unemployment benefits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Poverty / psychology*
  • Public Assistance / economics*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Unemployment / psychology*