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Fresh Calls to #RaiseTheWage After Study Shows $1 Increase Could Prevent Thousands of Suicides

The House-approved Raise the Wage Act is among hundreds of bills sitting on the desk of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the self-declared "grim reaper" of progressive legislation.

raise the wage protest

A study published this week found that raising the minimum wage just $1 could prevent thousands of suicide deaths in the United States. (Photo: Getty Images)

A new study that suggests raising the minimum wage could prevent thousands of suicide deaths in the United States sparked fresh calls for relief from federal lawmakers and cast a spotlight on Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's legislative graveyard.

"Low-wage employees are in desperate need of a raise, and the Senate's refusal to pass the #RaiseTheWage Act is keeping vulnerable Americans in harm's way," the advocacy group Patriotic Millionaires tweeted on Thursday, linking to NPR's report on the study.

The peer-reviewed observational study—and subsequent reporting on it—has generated similar commentary across social media since the findings were published online Tuesday by the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582/S. 150) was introduced in January 2019 by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and White House hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). An analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that the legislation, which would raise the federal minimum wage over five years, could increase the incomes and improve the lives of an estimated 40 million Americans.

Scott and Sanders' measure was approved by the Democratic-majority House in July 2019 with support from just three Republicans. However, Leader McConnell (R-Ky.)—the self-declared "grim reaper" of progressive legislation—has so far ignored repeated calls from Sanders and others that he bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Tuesday's study notes that "though the federal minimum hourly wage increased from $3.80 in 1990 to $7.25 in 2015, adjusting for inflation reveals essentially no change, and since the 1968 peak the inflation-adjusted minimum wage has decreased; currently, 29 individual states and Washington, D.C. have raised their minimum wages, while 21 maintain the lower federal minimum."

The researchers behind the study used data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. between 1990 and 2015 to estimate how an increased minimum wage relates to suicide rates among U.S. adults aged 18 to 64 with a high school education or less. Based on states' monthly figures, they found a 3.4% to 5.9% decrease in suicide deaths for every $1 increase in the minimum wage.

Between 2009 and 2015 alone, "following the 2009 peak in unemployment during the great recession," a $1 rise in the minimum wage could have prevented 13,800 suicides and a $2 rise could have prevented 25,900 suicides, the researchers estimate. For the full period analyzed, those numbers are 27,550 for a $1 increase and 57,350 for a $2 increase.

"Our findings are consistent with the notion that policies designed to improve the livelihoods of individuals with less education, who are more likely to work at lower wages and at higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, can reduce the suicide risk in this group," the study says. "Our findings also suggest that the potential protective effects of a higher minimum wage are more important during times of high unemployment."

Lead researcher John Kaufman, a doctoral student of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, told HealthDay that "during periods of high unemployment, people are more willing to work at lower-wage jobs, and those lower-wage jobs are going to be the ones that have increased pay if there's an increase in minimum wage."

"Those jobs become more valuable both to the people working and to their dependents and their families, compared to times when the economy is doing well," he said.

The study's broader findings, Kaufman added, suggest that policymakers could help lower suicide rates across the country by taking action to raise wages.

"It's important to realize there are population-level interventions like these policies that can actually have an impact on the suicide rate," he said. "If the relationship that we see is a cause-and-effect relationship, then if you want to reduce suicide risk among people with less education, this might be one way to do it."

The study also notes that "while the minimum wage can serve as a population health intervention, it is important for society to provide other buffers between financial status and health, so that low education and economic insecurity do not increase the risk of mental illness and death."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Crisis Text Line is 741741. Both offer 24/7, free, and confidential support.

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