The world has been facing a suicide crisis over the past few years. In the United States alone, tens of thousands of people die by suicide each year. But new research shows that a $1 increase in the minimum wage might prevent thousands of deaths.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, “[s]uicide was the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States,” accounting for more than 47,000 deaths.
People can experience suicidal thoughts or be at risk of attempting suicide for a variety of reasons, including physical and mental illness, social isolation, substance abuse, and traumatic experiences.
For many people who consider suicide, the common point is a pervading feeling of hopelessness, often as a result of facing problems from which they can see no way out. One of these problems is, perhaps unsurprisingly, experiencing financial difficulties.
Recently, a team of researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, has sought to find out whether an increase in national minimum wages could make a real difference in terms of lowering the number of suicides per year.
The team’s findings — featured in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health — point to an answer very much in the affirmative. A tiny increase of just $1 in the minimum wage could have saved thousands of lives lost to suicide over the past year.
Just $1 could make a huge difference
The researchers started by considering the difference between the federal minimum hourly wage versus the state minimum hourly wage for all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., in conjunction with both unemployment and suicide rates among people aged 18–64 between 1990–2015.
During this period, the team notes, there were 478 amendments of the state minimum wage across all of the U.S. states. The researchers calculated that the average difference in minimum wage between state minimum wages and the federal minimum wage was $2,200 per year for a person working full time.
Moreover, while in 1990, as many as 36 of the U.S. states ratified minimum wages that were equal to the federal minimum wage, by 2015, only 21 states still offered this rate.
When they looked at suicide rates, the investigators observed that between 1990–2015, 399,206 people who were either high school educated or had lower levels of formal education had died by suicide.
By comparison, 140,176 people with a college degree or a higher level of formal education died by suicide during that same period.
Thus, the research team estimates there would have been a 3.5–6% drop in suicide rates for each $1 increase in the minimum wage — at least in the case of people with a high school or lower degree of formal education.
The same decrease did not appear to be likely in the case of individuals with at least a college degree.
State level unemployment also seemed to affect suicide rates during this period, the study authors note. When state unemployment rates were high, at 6.5% or above, higher minimum wages showed a link to lower suicide rates.
Yet when unemployment rates were low, there was a weaker association between minimum wage values and suicide rates.
Following on from these findings, the researchers went on to estimate that in the 6 years after the great recession of 2009 — in which unemployment rates were at a historic high — as many as 13,800 suicides could have been prevented among people with a high-school or lower degree of formal education if only the state minimum wage had increased by $1.
And adding $2 to the state minimum wage could well have prevented 25,900 deaths by suicide.
This evaluation means that between 1990–2015, a $1 increase could have prevented 27,550 suicides, and a $2 increase could have saved 57,350 lives.
Although this is an observational study that has only found an association, the researchers still emphasize that a tiny increase in a person’s earnings could have an inestimable value in terms of their well-being.
In their study paper, the first author of which is John Kaufman, the researchers write:
“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.”
“Our findings also suggest that the potential protective effects of a higher minimum wage are more important during times of high unemployment,” the investigators go on to add.
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