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The Left’s New Excuse for Raising the Minimum Wage? It’s Suicide Prevention

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The Left’s New Excuse for Raising the Minimum Wage? It’s Suicide Prevention

The Left’s New Excuse for Raising the Minimum Wage?  It’s Suicide Prevention
November 22
16:44 2019

There’s an old saying in the world of statistics: “Correlation is not causality.”  What that means is that two different trends or factors may be associated with each other, but it doesn’t mean that one actually causes the other.  They could be associated because of some unknown still-to-be-identified third factor.

Or worse, the correlation may only be apparent or what statisticians call “spurious” – which means despite appearances, it doesn’t actually exist in the real world.

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The issue of spurious correlation has raised its ugly head again because of a report released earlier this year by the left-leaning National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) which suggests that raising the minimum wage would reduce the suicide rate among low-income workers.

The report has caused a huge stir and has sparked renewed calls for an increase in the federal minimum wage in line with proposals already being promoted by some of the major Democratic presidential candidates, most notably Vermont’s senior senator, Bernie Sanders.

On its face, the connection between increasing the wages of struggling workers and reducing their suicide rates might seem compelling.  But it also requires a series of leaps in logic and reasoning that are far from obvious.  Financial stress and distress – and the difficulty paying one’s bills and provide for oneself and others – could well be influences on someone’s mental and emotional stability. Couldn’t that make them more depressed and anxious, and more despairing, and drive them to take their life?

It could but the research on the actual causes of suicide does not bear out this connection.  Well over 50% of those that commit suicide do not suffer from mental illness, at least not a diagnosed condition, and many of those in various states of despair, don’t kill themselves; they take drugs, legal or illicit, or seek out therapy, and some end up hospitalized.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that financial stress is unrelated to suicide.  But available studies suggest only that financial stress increases thoughts of suicide – or suicidal ideation — in about one in six people.  That’s too many, of course, but hardly suggestive of an overwhelming connection between financial stress and suicide attempts, let alone, actual suicide.

Another problem with linking income level to suicide is that suicide rates are increasing across the board – in all age and racial groups, and even across all income levels.  Many other factors play into these rising suicide rates – relationship troubles, the death of a spouse or lover, overwhelming loneliness, a loss of self-esteem, feelings of purposelessness and sexual assault among factors.

In fact, the kind of financial stress leading to suicidal thoughts often has little to do with living in or near poverty.  It could involve a sudden catastrophic loss of income due to gambling debts or a poor investment choice.  It’s often related to a specific trigger, not a long-standing condition.

In the end, how many low-income workers are really at risk of suicide anyway?  No one knows.  Many people unable to pay their bills or provide for themselves who are impoverished also have access to federal, state or local assistance, or charity from private sources.  Many of them also have families and qualify for welfare and special maternal and child-raising benefits.  A wage boost may or may not help them, in fact.  They’ll invariably lose their government benefits and have to find new ways to juggle work and family while paying for childcare.  These changes could well make their lives far more stressful than before.

Bernie Sanders’ own Vermont illustrates the extreme difficulty in assigning a disproportionate causal weight to financial stress as a reason for the rising incidence of suicide.   Vermonters for years have experienced an annual suicide rate that is 35% higher than the national average, and this is true for every age group, but especially for those 70 and above.  Alcohol abuse, medical problems, rural isolation and ready access to firearms are key factors in this trend, but all demographics feel these same pressures, state experts say.   Financial issues may well be a “contributing influence” but this influence is not restricted to anyone age, ethnicity or income group.

Why do some left-leaning economists insist on touting a link between lowering suicide rates and increasing the minimum wage?  Mainly because the purely economic arguments for raising the minimum wage are not especially strong, and many know it.  A minimum wage increase invariably creates a market backlash that ends up hurting all workers more than it helps, and some workers, like those in the restaurant industry, as well as farmers, are actually hurt quite badly, studies show.

But if a case can somehow be made that increasing the minimum wage actually helps prevent suicide, then logic and reason give way to bleeding-heart sympathy.  Forget about the well-documented economic costs.  The social costs – mainly to the guilt-ridden consciences of the middle class and the affluent — are simply too high.

Why hasn’t Sanders cited the NBER study by now?   Probably because knows his state – and the complexities of the minimum wage issue – far better than some of his fellow ideologues do.

About Author

Stewart L

Stewart L

Stewart Lawrence is a trained sociologist and political scientist and a regular columnist for the Washington Times and the Federalist. He is also a former feature contributor to Inside Philanthropy, Counterpunch and the Huffington Post. In 2012 and 2016, he covered the US presidential election campaign for the conservative news magazine Daily Caller. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post. He is currently working on a book about the politics of US immigration policy.

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