Rates of Suicide and the Minimum Wage: There is a Connection

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. He is also a filmmaker and published author. Listen to our podcast on iTunes and Spotify and visit our website: theworkingexperience.com for videos, merchandise and more. You can also find us on Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, and Twitter.

“No business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

A study out of Emory University examined data about the connection between minimum wage and rates of suicide from the years 1990 to 2015, focusing on adults ages 18–64 across all fifty states. The study found that an increase of $1 per hour in the minimum wage led to a 3.5% decrease in the rate of suicide among the population in the area affected by the increase.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that minimum wage increases had been linked to fewer cases of chronic illness, lower rates of premature death, and fewer cases of child maltreatment. These social ills seem to be somewhat alleviated by an increase in minimum wage. There are quite likely other factors at play but an increase in minimum is one of those factors. Other studies have also shown that an increase in minimum wage is linked to lower rates of suicide.

Of course, data is open to interpretation. Many heroin addicts report having started off smoking marijuana. Therefore, those who have been against the legalization of marijuana have labelled it a “gateway drug”; if you smoke marijuana, you will become a heroin addict. However, studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of people who smoke marijuana do not go on to use heroin. Similarly, the data reported by the NELP must be considered through more than one lens; there are most likely other factors at play in the numbers. The minimum wage might be “linked to” the social ills listed but it is not the only cause or solution to those problems. One must look carefully at how studies are performed and put the results into context.

Because the people doing the interpreting are making policy. Politicians and pundits will twist data to suit their agendas. They will cherry pick and take things out of context. Bernie Sanders, stated in 2016, “Raising the minimum wage by $1 could have prevented thousands of suicides.” Full disclosure, I voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and in 2020 and I am fully in favor of raising the minimum wage to an amount that allows workers to live comfortably. However, that is an oversimplification of the data. The minimum wage is one factor of many that must be considered when thinking about the rate of suicide in this country.

In the 2018–2019, the number of deaths attributed to suicide was 47, 511. Some of these are classified as “deaths of despair” meaning death from drug overdoses or alcoholism or some other destructive behavior. While deaths from these factors do not fit the stereotypical notion of someone ending their own life, it is still dying by one’s own hand, sort of a slow-motion suicide. The result is the same.

The CDC has called the issue a “slow moving public health crisis”.

Rates of suicide increased 33% between 1999 and 2019 and is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. These rates cannot be attributed to any one factor. It might feelings of isolation, lack of connectedness to a community, lack of spirituality, mental illness such as anxiety or depression; or it could be a sudden calamity such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.

There is no simple answer to why people commit suicide. There is no one reason people turn to drugs or alcohol to find solace. There are many combinations of factors that lead people down these paths. Would raising the minimum wage prevent this and address all social ills? No, and we have to be honest about that.

But it would help; that we do know. Look at the data.

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Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!

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Matty Kerr

Matty Kerr

Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!

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