Suicide rates are rising in the United States, and a new study points to a very simple solution, albeit one that faces a big obstacle. The study finds a strong link between minimum wage rates and suicides among people without a college education, who are most likely to be in low-wage jobs. The findings are part of a pattern of research showing poverty reduction saves lives, a message that doesn't seem to be having a lot of effect on public policy.
America's federal minimum wage hasn't changed since 2009, meaning it is falling in real terms as inflation eats away at it. However, more than half of America's states have higher minimum wages, and some of these have been raised frequently. This provides social scientists with a wealth of data to be draw on to see the effects when one state raises its minimum wage, while a neighbor keeps things the same.
Dr John Kaufman of Emory University has taken full advantage, examining the relationship between 478 states plus Washington DC wage rises between 1990 and 2015, and suicide rates the following year.
In the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health Kaufman finds each extra dollar per hour was associated with a 3.5-6 percent reduction in suicides among people aged 18-64 with high school or less education.
As a percentage that may seem small, but a $2 national increase in 2009 would have been expected to save almost 26,000 lives between 2009 and 2015, Kaufman calculates.
Kaufman and co-authors acknowledge observational studies like this cannot prove a causal relationship, but the correlation is powerful.
"Our findings are consistent with the notion that policies designed to improve the livelihoods of individuals with less education, who are more likely to work at lower wages and at higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, can reduce the suicide risk in this group," they write.
Although states with higher minimum wages had fewer suicides at all times, the contribution was greater at times when unemployment was high. Economic theory suggests this is because wages rise anyway when unemployment falls, although that hasn't happened recently.
The paper hints there is nothing special about minimum wage increases, and that other poverty alleviation mechanisms such as increased welfare spending can have similar effects, but this needs more testing.
Ideally higher minimum wages would reduce the other causes of mortality now lumped with suicide as “deaths of despair”, but one recent study was not promising.
Meanwhile, with suicide accounting for 19 percent – and rising – of deaths among Americans aged 18-24, the issue's importance is clear. Twenty-one states raised their local minimums last week, which is just as well given the senate and president's opposition to a national rise.