Raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour could lower the suicide rate among people with a high school education or less by up to 6 percent, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Not surprisingly, the study also found the effect is strongest during periods of high unemployment.
These findings underscore the important role that government policies designed to improve the economic security of people with less education can play in reducing socioeconomic disparities in health across the United States, the study’s authors say.
Suicide is certainly one of those disparities. In the U.S., both suicide and depression, which are often associated with financial stressors such as unemployment and debt, disproportionately affect people with lower levels of education and income. A 2017 study found, for example, that American men with a high school education or less are twice as likely to die from suicide than those with a college degree.
The suicide rate in the United States is, tragically, on the rise. It has increased by 25 percent over the past two decades, and 30 states — including Minnesota — have seen their suicide rates climb by nearly 30 percent.
Suicide is a major cause of death for Americans. It was responsible for more than 47,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017 — or about one death every 11 minutes, according to the Centers for Control and Prevention. It is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34, the fourth leading cause for people aged 35 to 54, and the eighth leading cause for people aged 55 to 64.
Collecting the data
The authors of the current study, a team of epidemiologists at Emory University, wanted to see if economic interventions that reduce financial stress — specifically, state increases in the minimum wage — have any effect on reducing suicide rates. They gathered data on the hourly minimum wage that was in effect in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., during every month from 1990 to 2015, as well as each state’s monthly unemployment rates. They also obtained month-by-month data on suicide rates for each state for adults aged 18 to 64. Information on educational attainment was collected from death certificates.
According to the data, 399,206 American adults aged 18 to 64 with a high school education or less took their own lives between 1990 and 2015, compared with 140,176 adults in that age group with a college degree or higher.
The data also revealed that there were 478 changes in state minimum wages between 1990 and 2015. Among states that implemented increases at or above the federal minimum wage, the average difference in wages was $1.10 an hour, or $2,200 a year for a full-time worker.
But the overall trend regarding minimum wage increases was downward during the period studied. In 1990, 36 states had a minimum wage equal to the federal rate. By 2015, only 21 states could make that claim.
Looking for connections
The researchers then conducted a statistical analysis to see if there was a link between increases in minimum wage and decreases in suicide death rates. They found that for every dollar increase in the minimum wage, the suicide rate dropped by 3.5 to 6 percent — but only among people with a high school education or less.
The analysis also revealed a correlation between unemployment and suicide rates. When a state’s unemployment rate was high (above 6.5 percent), higher minimum wages were associated with lower suicide rates. The minimum wage had little or no effect on state suicide rates when unemployment was low, however.
“This could be partly explained by the increased demand for workers leading to higher wages during times of low unemployment, regardless of minimum wages,” the researchers write.
Surprisingly, the analysis also revealed that the lowest suicide rates occurred when both minimum wage and unemployment were high. That finding may be because of “the buffering effect of more generous state-level unemployment benefits and increased social welfare spending” during times of high unemployment, the researchers say. Or, they add, it could be that when unemployment is high, individuals are less likely to feel that their financial stress is due to some personal failure.
Based on their analysis, the researchers calculated that following the peak in unemployment during the Great Recession (10 percent in October 2009), a $1 increase in the minimum wage could have prevented 13,800 suicides among Americans aged 18 to 64, while a $2 increase could have prevented 25,900 suicides.
They also calculated that during the entire 26-year period of study, raising the minimum wage by a dollar would have prevented 27,550 suicides, while increasing it by two dollars would have prevented 57,350 suicides.
Limitations and implications
Because this is an observational study, it can’t prove a direct causal connection between minimum wage hikes and lower suicide rates.
Still, this isn’t the first study to have uncovered such a link. Research published last year in the American Journal of Prevention Medicine found, for example, that every dollar increase in a state’s minimum wage led to a drop of almost 2 percent in that state’s suicide rate.
“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,” write the Emory University researchers in the current study.
Yet, as they also point out, raising the minimum wage will not by itself eliminate socioeconomic disparities in suicide risk.
“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,” they stress.
Progress is being made on raising the minimum wage, however. On Jan. 1, 20 states and 26 cities and counties raised their minimum wage, and 23 more cities and counties are set to follow suit later in the year.
Minnesota was one of those states. On Jan. 1, it raised its minimum wage to $10 per hour for people working for large employers and to $8.15 per hour for those working for small employers. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the minimum wage is higher and is scheduled to reach $15 per hour for all workers by 2022-2024.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the website for the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
If you or anyone you know are having thoughts about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).