On July 24, 2009, the federal minimum wage in the United States was raised to $7.25 per hour. Now, over a decade later, that wage remains the same. And while many states have opted for a slightly higher minimum rate, it doesn’t make up for the 19.78% average increase in prices since 2009.
Despite the phrase “money can’t buy happiness” reigning throughout contemporary society, it’s been proven than money problems and mental health are intricately linked – maybe even more so than what researchers originally thought. In a report published by the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, raising the minimum wage by $1 in each state could possibly save thousands of lives.
To figure out whether raising the minimum wage was correlated to suicide rates, researchers compared both numbers from 1990 to 2015, organizing them by state.
When they ran the numbers through an equation, they found that for every $1 increase in the minimum wage, suicide rates decreased from 3.5% to 6%. When factoring in unemployment, the effects appeared to be even stronger.
The study specifically looked at people aged 18-64 with a high school education or less. The reason for choosing to study lower educated people was because they are most likely to hold minimum wage-paying jobs.
According to John Kaufman, the lead author of the study, that group is also at a higher risk for mental health problems and suicide. Additionally, the researchers found that if the minimum wage had been $2 higher during the 2009 recession, 26,000 lives would have been saved.
“This is a way that you can, it seems, improve the well-being of people working at lower-wage jobs and their dependents,” Kaufman told NPR.
Fixing The Trend
Although there are more studies that also show raising the minimum wage decreases suicide rates, because they are studied at state levels, rather than individual, not much is known on why this happens. Over 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2019, and while this number continues to climb, it becomes increasingly harder to study the reasoning.
“At the individual level, there is never a single cause of suicide. There are always multiple risk factors,” says Christine Moutier, MD, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “That confluence of multiple risk factors makes it a trickier business to explain a population-level rise.”
Some argue that without knowing the cause for the decrease, there isn’t enough evidence to justify raising the minimum wage.
Aparna Mathur, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute says it makes sense at face value but questioned, “do we know that when people have high minimum wages they tend to go to the doctor more? They seek more help for depression?”
She also warns that wage hikes could cause employers to hold off on hiring new staff or cause others to lose their jobs. “They may not be committing suicide, but they still could be worse off [economically].”
In a statement from the authors of the study, they said, “our findings are consistent with the notion that policies designed to improve the livelihoods of individuals with less education…can reduce the suicide risk in this group.”
The study caught the eyes of politicians advocating for higher minimum wages, including Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders who wrote to Twitter,
“We will end the 40-year assault on the working class and the suffering it has caused for our people.”
In July last year, Democrats in the House pushed a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025. While this was a historic vote, considering it was the longest time the country had gone without a minimum-wage increase since the rate was established in 1938, many argue it’s not enough.
“Fifteen started 10 years ago, so what is that pegged to inflation today?” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
From 2009 to 2019, the U.S. dollar experiences an average inflation rate of 1.65%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The current inflation rate (2019 to 2020) is even high sitting at 2.29%.
To put that in perspective, $100 in 2009 is equivalent to approximately $120 today. If you live in more expensive cities like San Francisco or Denver, that number soars to approximately $133.
To be put simply, when the value of the dollar decreases over time, it pays for fewer items.
Despite unclear answers on why raising the minimum wage causes lower suicide rates, Kaufman plans to continue to research the effects wage hikes have on depression. And although raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 might not be entirely reflective of inflation, a Congressional Budget Office analysis estimates it would pull 1.3 million Americans out of poverty.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
For additional resources, visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.