Raising Minimum Wage by $1 Linked to Lower Suicide Rates in U.S. Study

Increasing the minimum wage by $1 has been linked to lower suicide rates in people with a high school education or less in the U.S. The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, showed raising the threshold by $1 could cut the number of suicides among 18 to 64 year olds in this demographic by between 3.4 percent and 5.9 percent, on average.

The effects appeared to be greatest during periods of high unemployment, John A Kaufman of the department of epidemiology at Emory University, Georgia, and colleagues found. The researchers looked at data on minimum wages, unemployment, and suicide counts for all 50 states and Washington, D.C. between 1990 to 2015.

"Curiously," the authors said, suicide rates were lowest when both minimum wage and unemployment were high, at around $1.75 above the federal level. This could be explained by other government programmes for unemployment but they were unable to assess based on the data they used.

Suicide is a major cause of death in the USA, the authors said, citing research showing rates spiked by 30 percent in half of U.S. states between 1999 to 2017.

There were more than 47,100 preventable suicides in 2017, which accounted for 19 percent of deaths among those aged 18 to 24, and 11 percent in the 25 to 44 age bracket. This comes against a backdrop of falling life expectancy in the U.S., with the Rust Belt and Ohio Valley hardest hit.

Suicide is often linked with financial problems like job loss and debt, the authors explained, and disproportionately affects those on lower incomes and levels of education. Paying people more may therefore "reduce disparities between socioeconomic groups," they said.

In 2015, the federal minimum hourly wage was raised to $7.25, up from $3.80 in 1990. But inflation meant there was "essentially no change" to people's earnings, the researchers said. In fact, "since the 1968 peak the inflation-adjusted minimum wage has decreased," they noted.

The authors argued: "While the minimum wage can serve as a population health intervention, it is important for society to provide other buffers between financial status and health, so that low education and economic insecurity do not increase the risk of mental illness and death."

Study co-author John Kaufman, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, told Newsweek the association the team found could be down to a "combination of improved access to resources, reduced stress from financial burdens, and improved social status (e.g. reduced social class discrimination, or feeling more valued within society)."

He went on: "As for our finding that minimum wage increases seem to have a larger effect on reducing suicide rates when the unemployment rate is higher, it could be that more people are willing to work at lower wages when unemployment is high, thus these jobs are more valuable than when the economy is doing well."

J. Paul Leigh, professor emeritus, at the University of California, Davis, department of public health sciences who did not work on the study told Newsweek: "The size of the effect is truly large: $1 increase leads to a 3.4% reduction in suicides.

"If there are 47,173 suicides then a 3.4 percent reduction would correspond to 1,603 fewer deaths each year," he said.

One potential explanation is that higher wages enable people to afford to get their depression or anxiety treated, Leigh suggested.

In 2018, Leigh published a study in the Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy suggesting employees might also see a reduction in sickness absence if they raise their wages for low-income people.

"If people do not get sick as often, then business will benefit with lower health insurance premiums," he said.

Dr. Thomas Richardson, a clinical psychologist in the U.K who has researched the impact of financial difficulties on mental health, told Newsweek: "What is really new about this study is that it examined how the impact of minimum wage on suicide rates differs by unemployment rates, with a bigger impact when there is high unemployment. The effect was also only for those with less education.

"This is important as financial and economic variables such as unemployment and income are all related to each other, so anything which tries to tease out the specific impact of each factor is important."

However he said: "There are many variables which can increase the risk of suicide at a population level which could not be accounted for in the data. For example a high level of personal debt has been linked to increased risk of suicide, but this was not accounted for in the results."

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.

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