by Maria Lebron, January 2020
An article in the Washington Post on January 9, 2020, “An increase of $1 in the minimum wage is linked to lower suicide rates, a study says” by Eli Rosenberg, reported on a new study demonstrating a correlation between an increase in the minimum wage and declining suicide rates among adults who are between 18 and 64 years old. The study conducted by Emory University researchers found that increases of $1 in minimum wage levels corresponded with a 3.4%t to 5.9% decrease in the suicide rates of people with a high school diploma or less in that age group.
The Emory researchers concluded their findings were “…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.”
The Post article also cited a report by the University of California at Berkeley which also concluded that a 10% increase in the minimum wage reduced suicides by 3.6 percent among adults who have a high school education or less.
Suicide happens when one feels extreme hopelessness and despair. John Kaufman, a doctoral student at Emory and the lead author of the report stated “We’ve known for a long time that economic distress affects people’s well-being, so in our study, we’re just trying to estimate what’s the strength of minimum wage increase.”
Hierarchy of Needs
Many years ago when I took Psychology as an undergrad one of the very first things I learned was Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is often represented as a five-tier pyramid of human needs. Maslow believed that a person needed to satisfy the needs lower in the hierarchy before the needs higher up can be addressed. When a need has been more or less been met, one can direct their attention to meeting the next set of needs. There isn’t a linear movement and one can move back and forth between the different levels of the pyramid.
From the bottom of the pyramid upwards, the needs are: Physiological; Safety; Love and Belonging; Esteem; and Self-actualization. Physiological needs are essential for human survival, such as air, food, drink, shelter, sleep, clothing, warmth. Maslow believed that if physiological needs weren’t satisfied, one couldn’t fully function and all the other needs became secondary until the basic needs were met. The needs in the second tier, safety, are also a human necessities. Safety needs are protection from the elements, security, order, law, stability, and freedom from fear. A safe environment is essential for adults and children to feel less anxious and fearful.
Looking at what Maslow defines as the essential needs which need to be met before one can fully address the other needs, it’s easy to see how someone who is making below a living wage would struggle to feel that they could take care of themselves and their families, which could adversely affect their mental health and lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Income Inequality and a Living Wage
The world is a different place than the one years ago when Maslow developed his theory. Climate change was not the critical problem is is now, causing climate refugees who have lost their homes and other climate related disasters like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the droughts and wildfires in California.
Now, when income inequality in the U.S. is at its highest level in more than five decades and many people are living paycheck to paycheck, one’s ability to meet their basic needs can be adversely impacted by many different factors: losing one’s job unexpectedly, a partner’s death, and crippling debt that one is unable to make a dent in. In September 2019, while presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned in a Nevada, a veteran named John Weigel spoke about his despair dealing with medical debt of more than $130,000 incurred for treatment of his Huntington’s disease. Sanders asked him how he was going to pay it off. “I can’t, I can’t. I’m gonna kill myself!” John responded.
Twenty states increased their minimum wage at the beginning of 2020 and many states have a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum of $7.25/hr. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised in more than a decade, and it needs to be revised in order to provide people with a living wage so they can meet their basic needs. Although the studies cited in the Post article addressed the the risk of suicide on people who had a high school education or less, if someone is living paycheck to paycheck, with no savings as a buffer, there is a constant underlying anxiety that people are dealing with no matter what their education is. This situation is obviously going to affect how they live their lives, decisions they make, what choices they have, and how they would be able to handle unforeseen circumstances that they can’t anticipate.