Raising the minimum wage could prevent suicides for low-income Americans, particularly among women, according to a new working paper from well-respected economists and public health specialists at the University of California at Berkeley.
The researchers found that a 10% rise in the minimum wage led to a 3.6% drop in non-drug related suicides for adults without college degrees. For women, who make up the majority of minimum wage workers, a 10% increase led to a 4.6% reduction.
The researchers concluded that raising the minimum wage plus expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit ― a cash benefit for low-wage families―could prevent more than 1,200 suicides a year.
Typically, discussion of the minimum wage is defined narrowly as an economic issue. The study demonstrates the far higher life-or-death stakes faced by low-income workers.
“It’s not just about jobs and wages; it’s about mental health,” said Anna Godøy, a labor economist at The University of California, Berkeley who co-authored the study. Higher minimum wages are “likely to save lives.”
Knowing that financial stress is a predictor of suicide, Godøy said she expected to find some kind of connection in their research. “Still I was certainly surprised at how clear the drop was,” she said, adding that as soon as a state raised wages there was a clear change in the data.
The study’s authors also looked at whether raising the Earned Income Tax Credit would have an effect on suicide rates. It did. A 10% increase in the credit led to a 5.5% drop in suicides for that same group.
The study, published in a working paper on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s website on Monday, adds to a growing body of research looking at the disturbing drop in life expectancy in the United States over the past three years ― mainly due to a rise in suicides and opioid-related overdoses, dubbed “deaths of despair.” In the early 20th Century because of World War I and the influenza pandemic, which led to about 675,000 deaths in the United States alone.
“The study adds to a growing body of research looking at the disturbing drop in life expectancy in the United States.”
The Berkeley study’s authors titled the paper, “Can economic policies reduce deaths of despair?”
The short answer is yes. But, the study found, only if drugs aren’t involved.
The researchers looked at mortality data, census figures, and information on minimum wage and EITC increases at the state level from 1999-2015. They compared workers with and without college degrees. The more educated workers functioned as a control group, as they’re unlikely to earn low wages. Suicide rates in that cohort were unchanged by the minimum wage increases.
The study separated drug-related suicides from non-drug related suicides and found that an increase in the minimum wage didn’t affect drug-related deaths.
“You’re not going to solve the opioid crisis through minimum wage increases,” said David Cooper, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “It’s not a silver bullet.”
But the study highlights how poverty creates stress that leads to devastating health outcomes. Cooper pointed out that for years economists looking at the minimum wage were mostly concerned with how raising pay affects the employment rate ― would higher wages lead businesses to fire workers? That question has largely been answered (no). So over the past few years, researchers have started to look at other angles.
Research has shown that raising the minimum wage leads to reduced self-reported depression, lower smoking rates, reduced worker absenteeism, and even higher infant birth-weights, Cooper pointed out.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. There are 21 states now where that rock-bottom wage prevails, but a wave of states and cities have been moving toward higher pay, in some cases closing in on $15 an hour.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.