Commentary: Raising the minimum wage can save lives
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Commentary: Raising the minimum wage can save lives

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Workers rally for a higher minimum wage. When the wage goes up, the suicide rate falls among workers with a high school education or less.

Workers rally for a higher minimum wage. When the wage goes up, the suicide rate falls among workers with a high school education or less. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The suicide rate in the United States has grown so much that it's contributing to an overall decline in life expectancy. The economic costs of these deaths run into the tens of billions of dollars; the emotional costs to families and communities are immeasurable.

But a new study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests a relatively simple way to reduce the number of people who take their own lives: raise the minimum wage.

The researchers focused on the impact of state minimum wage increases on suicide rates. They estimated that for the period from 2009-2015, a $1 increase in the minimum wage could have prevented 13,800 suicides among those aged 18 to 64 with a high school education or less; a $2 increase could have prevented 25,900 such deaths.

Shockingly, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour not risen since 2009. States can set a minimum higher than this federal standard, and currently 29 states and the District of Columbia do so. A total of almost 7 million workers in 22 states will benefit from minimum wage increases this year, providing an extra $8.2 billion to help them make ends meet -- and, apparently, preventing some suicides too.

The suicide study is strong medicine, bolstered by other studies detailing similar health effects.

But do we really need yet another justification for finally increasing the federal minimum wage?

Consider that a full-time employee earning $7.25 an hour makes $15,080 in a year. That falls below the poverty level for a parent and one child. During the last decade, as the minimum wage stagnated at $7.25, its purchasing power declined by 17%, representing a loss of more than $3,000 in annual earnings for a full-time, year-round federal minimum wage worker.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that requires employers to pay their workers the mandated minimum wage, was enacted in 1938 to ensure "the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being of workers." But the act has never come close to fulfilling its promise; taxpayers have borne the brunt of this failure, in the form of billions in government assistance.

In July, the House addressed this disgraceful record by passing the Raise the Wage Act of 2019. It would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025, index future increases to median wage growth and phase out the lower minimum wage paid to tipped employees. It would give up to 33 million Americans a raise, while lifting 1.3 million out of poverty. And it would better align the U.S. with minimum wages set in comparably advanced economies.

But the bill is going nowhere in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has no plans to bring it to the floor, and the White House has warned that the president would veto the bill if it arrived on his desk.

The naysayers claim employers cannot afford to pay workers a higher minimum. But recent studies show that even significant increases in the minimum wage would lead to only minimal job losses, if any. And two-thirds of the American public favors raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, according to the Pew Research Center.

It shouldn't take a suicide study to awaken us, after decades of neglect, to the critical need for meaningful increases to the federal minimum wage. Enacting the Raise the Wage Act has always been the right thing to do. As it turns out, it's also a matter of life and death.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Mass., retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the Department of Labor, serving from 2010-2018 as its New England regional solicitor. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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