U.S. suicide deaths have increased sharply over the last 20 years — nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2016. But researchers may have found an effective way to alter the direction through one simple policy change: raising the minimum wage. A change of as much as $1 per hour could make a dramatic difference in the suicide rate.
A study conducted by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health used data on state minimum wages and suicide rates for all 50 states between 2006 and 2016, The Associated Press reported. The study found that increases in state minimum wages in recent years have been associated with decreases in suicide rates. The research was published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“Our study found that when a state increased its minimum wage, the suicide rate increased less than in other states and other times,” Alex Gertner, the lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Gillings. “It’s possible that increasing the minimum wage improves life satisfaction, increases access to health care and decreases mental illness, which all lead to fewer suicide deaths.”
“U.S. workers’ real wages have barely increased in decades, and they enjoy fewer labor protections than workers in other wealthy countries,” Gertner said. “Most of health is determined by social conditions, rather than use of health care services. Policies that improve financial security may have a key role to play in reversing worsening trends in suicides in the U.S.”
Once considered, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Money can’t solve every problem, but having enough of it to stave off hunger, health problems and other effects of poverty allows us to function more fully. Not having enough — coupled with problems such as failed relationships and substance abuse — can contribute to feelings of despair and hopelessness.
The UNC study echoes conclusions reached by other researchers. A recent working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research recommends raising the earned-income tax credit, which was designed to boost the wages of low-income workers, particularly families with children, as well as raising the minimum wage, by 10 percent. Doing so could prevent about 1,230 suicides annually, the paper suggested.
A team working with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention concluded that raising the minimum wage and increasing the tax credit helps the less-educated, low-wage workers who have been hit hardest by what are now known as “deaths of despair” — “drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality — particularly among those with a high school degree or less.”
It seems that giving people more financial resources in even an incremental way can provide them with enough hope to keep going. Everyone wants to feel as if their hard work is getting them somewhere. But when they fail to obtain the expected rewards — when they struggle with crippling debt, or health problems they can’t afford to solve, or see no future for their children — they can despair.
Achieving the proper rewards for a day’s work — a living wage — shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Especially since it can be a matter of life and death.