Raising the minimum wage may save lives. A study released this week suggests a correlation between an increase in the minimum wage and declining suicide rates among adults ages 18 to 64.
The paper, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that state-level increases of $1 in minimum wage corresponded with a 3.4 percent to 5.9 percent decrease in the suicide rates of people with a high school diploma or less in that age group. Emory University researchers analyzed monthly data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2015.
Not only that, we have data showing that while wage gains due to the strong labor market are finally being felt at the bottom end of the pay scale, they are concentrated in states with higher minimum wages (currently 21 states — nearly all run by Republicans — have minimums no higher than the federal minimum).
According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 2010 and 2018, low-wage workers in states with higher minimum wages saw their pay increase almost twice as fast on average as those in states that use the federal minimum. (The difference was even greater for women.)
And as of Jan. 1, minimum-wage workers in 21 states will get a raise as new increases kick in. This will further increase earnings for those at the bottom of the pay scale, for which President Trump will no doubt take credit, despite the fact that he and his party vehemently oppose increasing the minimum wage.
This is one more way that Red America and Blue America continue to drift apart. If you’re, say, a dishwasher in a restaurant in Alabama, you may make only $7.25 an hour. If you do the same job in Washington state, you now make at least $13.50 an hour.
To be clear, an extra dollar or two may not turn anyone’s life around, but a little extra money might keep you from one of the potential cascades into crisis that make life in poverty so precarious: Your car breaks down, you don’t have enough money for the repair, you can’t get to work so you lose your job, you can’t pay your rent so you get evicted, and suddenly you’ve lost everything, all over a few hundred bucks. That may help explain the findings on suicide.
What’s particularly cruel about the stagnant minimum wage is that it exists alongside an extremely thin social safety net that Republicans keep trying to make thinner. Low wages wouldn’t be so brutal if we had the robust system of social supports that characterize most of our peer countries.
Worst of all, the states where those social supports are weakest — for instance, where Republicans have refused the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid and do everything they can to restrict eligibility to as few people as possible — are precisely the states where Republican legislatures and governors adamantly refuse to increase the minimum wage.
Which means that when Democrats advocate for an increased federal minimum wage, they aren’t trying to help people in California ($13 minimum) or Massachusetts ($12.75) as much as they’re trying to help people in Oklahoma or Wyoming, people whose votes will never help them.
There are legitimate questions about how fast and how far it’s most helpful to raise the minimum; obviously, there are going to be disruptions if you double it all at once. Which is why the best policy solution is to set a target — $12, or $15, or some other number — and then increase the minimum gradually over a period of years until you hit it. (This is what a number of states have done.)
And then — and this is critical — index the minimum wage to inflation so it goes up automatically to keep pace with the cost of living. That way we wouldn’t have to keep having these political battles and wait on the goodwill of Republicans for those doing some of the hardest, dirtiest jobs to get a raise.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine that the Republican Party as it exists now will ever be willing to increase the federal minimum wage past $7.25. Which means it will just have to wait until there’s a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president willing to do it.