“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,” the researchers wrote.
Suicide is one of a handful of “deaths of despair” that some researchers have connected to other social and economic issues. Despite the economy’s robust growth in recent years, preventable deaths such as those linked to alcoholism, suicide and drug overdoses have risen, and that’s one of the main reasons that U.S. life expectancy has declined for three years in a row.
“Mortality from deaths of despair far surpasses anything seen in America since the dawn of the 20th century,” said a recent report from the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee, which is headed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Suicide is at its highest rate since 1938, according to the committee.
The Emory research is part of a growing body of work that examines the relationship between economic conditions and public health.
Last year, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley released a report that found that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage reduced suicides by 3.6 percent among adults who have a high school education or less. Other reports have found that minimum wage increases go hand-in-hand with less smoking, higher birth weights and fewer work absences for health reasons.
“We’ve known for a long time that economic distress affects people’s well-being,” said John Kaufman, a doctoral student in epidemiology at Emory and the lead author of the report. “So in our study, we’re just trying to estimate what’s the strength of minimum wage increase.”
Kaufman said the results raised the question of what other significant mental-health outcomes could result from increased minimum wage.
“Suicides are an indicator of the most extreme end of the despair spectrum, so to speak,” he said. “We’d expect to see more effects on more common problems like depressions, attempted suicide, and drug use as well.”
A worker earning the federal minimum wage would make $15,080 a year — an amount that many have pointed out is below the federal poverty level for a family of two.
The Senate committee report argued that there was a “lack of correspondence” between economic and social indicators and deaths of despair, and urged policymakers to focus on the overdose epidemic rather than on economic origins. A spokesman for Lee, the senator heading the committee, said the new research doesn’t change their thinking.
“Our reading is the paper found that a higher a [sic] state minimum wage over the federal minimum wage is correlated with less suicide,” spokesman Conn Carroll wrote in an email. “By this logic, if we raised the federal minimum wage while keeping state minimum wages constant, suicide would go up! Or, we could really reduce suicide by eliminating the federal minimum wage entirely thus creating a huge gap between state minimum wages and the federal one. These seem non-sensical.”