More Americans are dying by suicide than at any other point in the last half-century, the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2018. The national suicide rate increased by 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, which contributed to an average decline in American life expectancy. Suicide is now a public-health crisis, and a complex one, too; there’s no one-size-fits-all prevention strategy suitable for all at-risk people. Therapy, medication, and legislation that restricts public access to firearms have been shown to be effective means of reducing rates of death from suicide. But a new working paper from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that there may another way to achieve a modest decline in deaths from suicide. Raising the minimum wage doesn’t just fulfill a key demand of the labor movement, or lift workers out of poverty, or redistribute some corporate profits from the CEOs at the top to the workers who keep their businesses afloat. Higher wages can also save lives.
Berkeley researchers found that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage “dropped suicides among men and women without college degrees aged 18 to 64 by 3.6 percent.” Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, which principally benefits low-and-middle-income households with children, by 10 percent also reduced deaths by suicide by 5.5 percent in the same demographic. Policy that increases “both the minimum wage and the EITC by 10 percent would likely prevent a combined total of around 1,230 suicides each year,” researchers concluded.
Previous research had already confirmed links between economic precarity and suicide rates. As CityLab reported at the time, a 2015 study in the Journal of Public Health found that deaths by suicide spurred by evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010, a period of time that spans the recession of 2008. Rising mortality rates among midlife, non-Hispanic whites without college degrees are driven in part by deaths by suicide, as Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented in a pair of papers on rising rates of “deaths of despair” — deaths through drug overdose or suicide. The Berkeley study did not find that higher minimum wages and EITC benefits reduced rates of death by drug overdose, and researchers did not restrict their work to non-Hispanic whites. Instead, they intervened in an on-going debate about deaths of despair as a category, and their conclusion adds new dimension to an emerging body of work that examines the links between poverty and public-health crises.
Non-Hispanic whites are less likely to live in poverty compared to other racial demographics, and they aren’t the only group to experience an increase in deaths by suicide. In fact, the CDC’s 2018 report found that suicide rates had increased in all demographics. The psychological burdens of poverty are well known and can be especially damaging to children and adolescents. Adults, too, can experience cognitive costs associated with economic deprivation, both in the form of impaired decision-making and in disproportionately high rates of self-reported depression in individuals living under the federal poverty threshold.
The conclusion of the Berkeley study seems almost intuitive. If poverty contributes to depression, and to rates of death by suicide, then poverty-reduction measures may also be suicide-prevention measures. As Matthew Desmond outlined recently in the New York Times, higher minimum wages had already been tentatively linked to declines in smoking and low-weight births and an increased ability to pay basic medical expenses. “Poverty can be unrelenting, shame-inducing and exhausting. When people live so close to the bone, a small setback can quickly spiral into a major trauma,” Desmond wrote. A foreclosure, a medical bill, a car that can’t be fixed; poverty opens you up in a hundred different ways and leaves you vulnerable to a predatory world. There’s only so much trauma a human being can endure before they stop feeling human at all.
A 10 percent raise is such a small thing, yet it still has so many enemies. Republican lawmakers tend to oppose it, as do many corporations. In a recent, major exception to that rule, McDonald’s announced this year that it will no longer oppose minimum-wage hikes. That decision could save lives, but only because workers forced the matter. The Fight for 15 movement is also a fight for human life.
If you’re considering thoughts of self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.