On Monday, the General Assembly will reconvene for its summer session. While the legislators were on break for a few weeks, 138,000 voters in Philadelphia voted in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Also during the break, Governor Tom Wolf announced a new task force in response to the high number of suicide deaths in the commonwealth. Pa.’s minimum wage and suicide rate might seem unrelated at first, but a new study suggests a troubling connection.
The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour, which is the federal minimum wage. Even as states around Pennsylvania have responded to the rising cost of living by raising the minimum wage (N.J. is on a path to $15 by 2024), the Republican-led General Assembly has consistently refused any increase. Further, state law preempts cities from imposing their own minimum wage (though Philadelphia has raised the wage for city workers and contractors). The opposition argues that increasing the minimum wage will lead to job losses and slower growth — a claim that evidence suggests is false or exaggerated.
Voters in Philadelphia were not convinced by this argument. On the May 21 primary election, voters were asked if they support amending the City Charter to call on the General Assembly to increase the minimum wage in Philadelphia to $15 an hour by 2025 or allowing Philadelphia to set its own minimum wage. Eighty-two percent voted in favor of the change and in support of a minimum-wage increase.
While the debate over the minimum wage usually focuses on a potential trade-off with unemployment, some public-health researchers stress the importance of taking into account the impact of a higher minimum wage on people’s well-being.
A study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in March found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage is associated with a 1.9 percent decrease in suicides. Alex Gertner, the lead author of the study, explains that the increase in the minimum wage could alleviate financial stress, which is a major contributor to suicide.
In 2018, Pennsylvania lost 2,030 people to suicide. The commonwealth experienced a 34 percent increase in suicides between 1999 and 2016 — 9 points more than the increase nationwide. In response, Wolf convened a task force to develop a long-term suicide prevention plan for the commonwealth.
Suicide prevention is extremely difficult. Many of the people who attempt suicide do so impulsively. That is why focusing prevention effort solely on mental-health services is a mistake. The response must also address the underlying drivers of suicide, including economic stress.
Using the result of the UNC study, increasing the minimum wage to $15 — a $7.75 increase — could translate to close to a 15 percent reduction in suicides — the equivalent of preventing as many as 300 suicides last year.
Increasing the minimum wage is not only a poverty alleviation strategy, it is a public-health response. It is also the will of the people. It should be on the top of legislators’ to-do list for the summer.