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No, Don Young, ‘government largesse’ doesn’t lead to more suicide

Rep. Don Young. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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On Wednesday Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) expanded on his controversial comments about suicide earlier this week. Speaking at a senior center (versus the high school audience that heard him suggest that families were to blame for suicides), Young said that "this suicide problem didn't exist until we got largesse from the government."

He then continued: "When people had to work and had to provide and had to keep warm by putting participation in cutting wood and catching the fish and killing the animals, we didn’t have the suicide problem."

We'll address those two claims separately.

The first point, that welfare programs are somehow linked to suicide, if not to blame, is not supported by evidence. Using data from the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services, it's clear that there's no strong linkage between use of government assistance and the suicide rate. Look at the gray area on the chart: use of Social Security goes up as the suicide rate goes down.

We included the unemployment rate on the graph because there has been some research linking unemployment to increased suicide rates. Unemployment can also cause people to rely on government assistance programs, of course. The bottom (orange) line on the chart shows the percent of the population using food stamps, Social Security, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It correlates more strongly to the suicide rate than Social Security use alone, perhaps in part because use of food stamps and TANF increased as the economy tanked. There's no data prior to 1995 in the set we found.

Back to Young's other comment, that a rugged Alaskan life of wood-chopping and fishing would have prevented more suicides. That's hard to evaluate, given that there aren't many statistical sources tracking cords of wood cut per year. We can look at data from before public assistance programs existed, though, thanks to historic data from the CDC like this abstract from 1907. How did suicide in the early 20th century compare to the 10 - 12 suicides per 100,000 people we see today?

The suicide rate was higher.

Suicide is a long-standing problem with complex roots and individualized causes. Using it to critique a political point seems ill-advised, even when there's data to support the claim. Here, there isn't.