Much of the debate over increasing the minimum wage has centered around whether that will kill jobs, but a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health raises a new argument: Minimum wage increases actually prevent death.
The authors examined monthly data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. from 1990 to 2015 and found that after controlling for other factors, there was an estimated 6 percent decrease in the suicide rates for adults under 65 who do not have a college degree for every statewide $1 increase in the minimum wage.
The 21st century has seen an uptick in the U.S. suicide rate, which was at a historically low level in 1999 but shot up 30 percent by 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2017, there were more than 47,000 suicides in the U.S., making suicide the country's tenth-leading cause of death, and the second most common cause of death among adults under 35. People without college degrees are thought to be as much as twice as likely to kill themselves as people who completed college. In 2019, public research showed that American life expectancy was ticking downward as a consequence of "deaths of despair"—suicides, overdoses, and other causes of death linked to alcohol and drug use. It's not exactly that the U.S. as a whole is getting more unhealthy or more prone to despair. What appears to be happening is that certain parts of the U.S., and certain populations, are in a constant state of low-level agony caused by some combination of economic hardship, drug use, and a general sense that nobody cares about them.
An increased minimum wage does not seem directly related to all those public health concerns. But there are a lot of reasons why that might be a way to reduce suicide, suggested John Kaufman, a doctoral student at Emory University who was the lead author of the report. People might feel relief from having more money to pay off debt like medical bills and to buy necessities. "There could be some effect on improving people's optimism by making them feel maybe a little more valued or protected in society," he said. In other words, minimum wage increases might signal to low-wage workers that they are not being ignored by the people who control governments.
The study didn't find a change in suicide rates among adults with college degrees, who are less likely to work minimum wage jobs or rely on income from people doing that kind of work. But the drop in suicide rates didn't just affect people who had jobs, it included all people without college degrees in a given state, employed or not, suggesting that the effect goes beyond people’s personal paychecks getting a bump.
Another key finding was that the effect on suicide rates was stronger when unemployment rates were higher. "A lot of counterarguments to raising the minimum wage are that, well if you raise the minimum wage, then maybe the unemployment rate goes up, particularly for people at lower-wage jobs," Kaufman said. "That's not something we're looking at directly in our study. But we did see that when unemployment rates are higher… We see a stronger protective effect of a higher minimum wage."
Kaufman said that that effect could be studied further, as could the effect of minimum wage on other aspects of mental health. But it's clear that increasing the minimum wage is a way to lessen the burden for people who carry much too much stress and pain.
"It's important for people, including policy-makers, to realize that there are societal-level factors that affect people's health, including mental health," Kaufman said. "This might be one possible option or intervention for improving the health and wellbeing of people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum."
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