Berkeley, CA – The number of suicides in the U.S. has increased by 33 percent in the past 20 years. What can be done? Increasing wage supports for low-income workers could make a difference, according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. The University of California, Berkeley research team includes William H. Dow, Anna Godoey, Christopher Lowenstein, and Michael Reich.
The Berkeley research team investigated the extent to which so-called “deaths of despair” – caused by alcohol, drugs, and suicide – respond to two key policies that raise incomes for low-wage workers. They found that 10 percent increases in both the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) may prevent a combined total of over 1200 suicides each year.
“We learned that the number of suicides among people with high school education or less dropped substantially after states implemented more generous policies,” said Anna Godoey, research economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley.
The researchers examined state and federal increases in minimum wage and EITC policies over 16 years to pinpoint their potential effects on suicide and drug-related deaths for people aged 18-64.
“Our results show that even modest increases to the incomes of low-wage workers can make a difference,” said William Dow, Interim Dean of the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. “The largest effects were on women, who are more likely to work minimum wage jobs and be eligible for the EITC.”
Their findings are consistent with other recent research identifying economic correlates of suicide, such as unemployment and home foreclosures. For example, higher incomes generated by minimum wage increases have been shown to substantially improve credit ratings, reducing the cost of credit and easing debt problems.
“Can Economic Policies Reduce Deaths of Despair” is the first study to credibly establish a causal link between higher wages and earned income benefits and a lower suicide rate for this population.
- Non-drug suicides declined significantly among the groups most likely to be affected by higher minimum wages and EITCs.
- For college-educated workers, who are unlikely to be affected by either policy, the authors found no reductions in suicides.
- Neither policy significantly affected drug-related deaths, which have increased with the greater availability of illegal opioids, heroin, and fentanyl. Other policies are needed to address these deaths.
Adding to a growing body of work linking income and health, this innovative research identifies a substantial public health benefit of increasing minimum wages and the EITC: combating the high and increasing levels of suicides. Examining the longer-term effects of the wage structure on health outcomes remains a high priority for future research.
Support for this research was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action program. Policies for Action is helping to explore the root causes of health disparities in America, and identify potential solutions to improve health, equity and well-being. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.