When the minimum wage is too low it becomes a public health risk

We often discuss what the minimum wage does to the economy, but rarely do we discuss what it does to people.

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  • Several studies show a low minimum wage is horrible for the health of the people making it.
  • Their children are also likely to endure hardships that will burden them for much of their lives.
  • The effects on their physical and mental health are varied, multi-faceted.

A treasure trove of recent research affirms what many of us already know — being broke sucks. One 2016 study, for instance, found that thousands of premature deaths could have been prevented if the minimum wage was higher. The reasons for this seem to be varied, multi-faceted.

At the conclusion of one 2011 study, in particular, researchers at UCLA and the University of Washington found that the workers with lower wages consistently reported more unmet medical needs, even after accounting for differences in insurance rates. On top of these unfulfilled essentials, low-income Americans also suffer from unceasing anxiety — it's enough extra stress that it may, en masse, be lowering their overall life expectancy.

To get into the specifics of how this negative effect unfurls in their daily lives, another study — it was performed by researchers from UC Davis and published in January — found that a low minimum wage was correlated with a higher number of people who smoke, a major contributing factor of lung disease.

While none of this will be shocking to anybody who has lived on rice and canned soup for a time — or to those who have laid wide awake at night worrying how they'll pay the rent — these findings may be surprising news to some of you. What's more, it may shock and astound that some experts go so far as to assert that when the minimum wage is too low, it can constitute and perpetuate a public health crisis.

Won’t somebody think of the children?

The debate over how much the minimum wage should be is never-ending. It was heated in the '30s when the national minimum wage was first introduced, vicious in the '70s when it was at its comparative highest, and is extremely contentious now — it's been 10 years since we last raised it.

Most of the time, the discussion concerns nothing but economic matters — i.e., "What will happen to unemployment?" "Will people actually end up with more money?" "Will inflation spike?" And so forth. However, focusing on the dollars and cents of the issue can obscure other important aspects. All economic debates, in the end, relate back to real people trying to solve real problems. The wrong answer in an economic debate can lead to tragedy in other sectors of experience.

That's why today we're looking deeper at a well-studied but rarely considered side of the minimum wage debate — its impact on the public's overall health. Not just to adults, but on children as well. Indeed, on top of the anxiety it induces in their parents, new research has shed a light on how financial instability is wreaking havoc on children's mental and physical health. One such study, published this year by researchers at West Chester University, concluded that economic instability was a key factor in rising stress levels in children.

This resounding stress — it was gauged by the kids' cortisol levels — can cause numerous issues, including an adverse influence on their brain development. Additionally, researchers of one 2017 study discovered a link child-neglect reports and the federal minimum wage — when it was increased, there were fewer cases.

The constant anxiety and neglect many children experience may, according to Stanford researchers, promote paradigms and situations that further perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Why decent wages are a godsend 

Taken as a whole, a low minimum wage can be catastrophic and a decent one a godsend. This explains a brilliant paragraph by Matthew Desmond, in one of his pieces for The New York Times:

"A $15 minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect. But why? Poverty can be unrelenting, shame-inducing and exhausting. When people live so close to the bone, a small setback can quickly spiral into a major trauma. Being a few days behind on the rent can trigger a hefty late fee, which can lead to an eviction and homelessness. An unpaid traffic ticket can lead to a suspended license, which can cause people to lose their only means of transportation to work. In the same way, modest wage increases have a profound impact on people's well-being and happiness."

What about the other side of it? What about businesses that go under?

How much of a detriment to business minimum wage increases are is a continued topic of study and controversy. Several New York businesses have said the recently increased minimum wage has forced them to lay off workers, raise prices, and roll back hours.

This said, there currently seems to be a catch 22 here — while raising the minimum wage would alleviate some of the data-discovered problems mentioned above, that would be of little use if to those who could suddenly find themselves unemployed.

However, the general economic consensus is that raising the minimum wage doesn't need to be an economic catastrophe. The current academic concern around raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is less about raising it and more about how quickly it gets raised — this would be the fastest it has ever gone up.

The current low level of the minimum wage causes more than just economic problems. It makes the necessary physical and mental functionality needed for a dignified living difficult, if not impossible, to maintain for millions of people. While the best way to address these problems is and must be up for debate, the researched-backed fact that the current low level of the minimum wage is linked to several health problems is not.

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