As the suicide rate increases across the United States, researchers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health approached the issue by considering the financial anxiety caused by low wages. Alex Gertner, Jason Rotter, and Paul Shafer used the LawAtlas minimum wage dataset to explore the associations between state minimum wages and suicide rates in the United States.
Their study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on March 21, 2019.
Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research spoke with Mr. Gertner about their study.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The purpose of this study was to determine whether increases in state minimum wages have been associated with changes in state suicide rates, what did you determine?
Alex Gertner: We found that a one-dollar increase in the real minimum wage was associated on average with a 1.9 percent decrease in the annual state suicide rate in adjusted analyses. This negative association was most consistent in years since 2011. An annual decrease of 1.9 percent in the suicide rate during the study period would have resulted in roughly 8,000 fewer deaths by suicide.
Why focus on minimum wage as a factor in suicide rates?
AG: Between 1999 and 2016, the suicide rate increased significantly in 44 states, with 25 states experiencing increases of more than 30 perent. The increases in suicides are contributing to reversals in decades-long trends of decreasing overall mortality rates.
At the same time, U.S. workers’ real wages have barely increased in decades, and they enjoy fewer labor protections than workers in other wealthy countries. Financial stress has been identified as a contributing factor in suicides across many settings. Prior studies found that increases in state minimum wages in the U.S. were associated with improved life satisfaction among workers without a high school diploma and reduced odds of reporting unmet medical needs. We thought that increasing minimum wages may also reduce suicide deaths where financial stress was a contributing factor.
Were you surprised at all by your findings?
AG: We were surprised at how robust the association was. The association remained relatively unchanged even as we controlled for several state level factors and changed the assumptions in our model.
How did you use the LawAtlas minimum wage dataset in your evaluation, and why did you decide to use this dataset?
AG: The LawAtlas minimum wage data set provided the primary independent variable in our analysis. That is, we used the data from LawAtlas to understand when, where and how much the minimum wage changed across states in our study period. Translating laws into data that can be used for studies is challenging. One of us had previously used LawAtlas for a study on the effect of naloxone access laws. LawAtlas uses rigorous methods to distill laws into data for research.
What are the implications of your findings, and where should research go from here?
AG: Our study suggests raising the minimum wage could be a tool in addressing increasing suicide rates. However, the association may not be causal. The next step would be to see if minimum wage increases decrease suicide rates specifically among low-wage workers and to examine the effect of increasing minimum wages in difference places. How minimum wages affect well-being may be different in difference places and at different times. Minimum wage laws in the U.S. may be particularly important for providing financial security given stagnant wages and the few labor protections U.S. workers enjoy compared with workers in other high-income countries.