[Content Warning: Suicide]

Increases to the minimum wage result in a decrease in the rate of suicide among individuals with a high school education or less, found a study published last month in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. Researchers involved in the report looked at monthly data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2015 and discovered that a $1 increase in the minimum wage led to a 3.4 to 5.9 percent decrease in the rate of suicide during the following year, among adults aged 18-64 years old with a high school education or less.

“Between 1990 and 2015, raising the minimum wage by $1 in each state might have saved more than 27,000 lives,” reported National Public Radio on the study’s findings. “An increase of $2 in each state’s minimum wage could have prevented more than 57,000 suicides.” The effect was stronger in areas where unemployment was higher, researchers said.

The findings come as a new measure to increase the state minimum wage is making the rounds in the recently convened 2020 Hawai‘i State Legislature. HB2541 “Relating to Helping Working Families” (and its companion bill SB3102) aims to increase the minimum wage in annual steps, up to $13 an hour in January 2024. The bill also would make the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable, meaning “qualified families can get a cash refund of up to $380,” said State House Majority spokesperson James Gosner. 

Currently, Hawai‘i’s minimum wage is $10.10 an hour, based on a bill passed in 2014 which made its final incremental increase to the wage in 2018. Last year, multiple efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2023 failed in late-April.

The research exploring the impact of the minimum wage on suicide rates is part of a growing field. “The study is the third in less than a year to show that raising the minimum wage may lower suicide rates,” Dr. Alexander Tsai, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, told NPR. “In a lot of areas around the country, we’re seeing that the American dream is really not panning out for a lot of people,” he added.

The new body of research explores how factors such as cost of living and the economy impact our mental and physical well-being. This has led to exploration into the causes of so-called “diseases of despair” which include suicide, overdose, and cirrhosis of the liver.

In Hawai‘i from 2013 to 2017, suicide rates have climbed, as have rates of deaths from drugs and alcohol, said a June 2019 report from independent health care research foundation The Commonwealth Fund. Rates of each of the three causes for death were higher than the national average.

A 2018 report from the Prevent Suicide Hawai‘i Taskforce, a group formed by the 2016 State Legislature, also articulated the crisis: “Suicide was the most common cause of fatal injuries among Hawai‘i residents over the five-year period from 2012 to 2016, accounting for one-quarter of all fatal injuries, outpacing car crashes, homicide, unintentional poisoning, and drowning. One person dies by suicide in Hawai‘i approximately every two days.”

Meanwhile, CNBC listed Hawai‘i as the No. 1 most expensive state in the US to live in during 2019. According to the State Department of Economic Development and Tourism, on Maui in 2018, “A single adult with no children needed to earn an hourly wage of $16.80 to be able to meet its basic needs and to be economically self-sufficient. That was 68.9 percent above the state minimum wage level and 154.1 percent above the federal poverty threshold for Hawai‘i.”

[Editor’s Note: Individuals contemplating suicide or who know someone struggling with thoughts of suicide may contact the state neighbor island crisis hotline at 1-800-753-6879 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).]

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