Over the past 19 years, the number of people that commit suicide each year has risen by over a third, and much of this is due to increasing suicide rates among White Americans, The Washington Post reports.
Many experts speculate that many of these deaths are a product of worsening life outcomes for less-educated people, but they offer few immediate solutions. However, the solution may be quite simple: policies that improve the future of the working class.
Studies have shown that increases in minimum wage or tax credit for families are correlated with decreases in suicide rates. And, according to a forthcoming National Bureau of Economic Research paper, upping the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and minimum wage by 10 percent could stop over 1,200 suicides every year.
The EITC was implemented to improve the wages of low-income employees, particularly those with children. Numerous state governments have expanded assistance and eligibility for the EITC.
Increasing wages and government tax credit assist low-income, less-educated people who are most heavily impacted by what scholars call “deaths of despair.” The phrase, popularized by economists at Princeton University Anne Case and Angus Deaton from their widely cited 2015 and 2017 studies, refers to the increasing share of deaths from the middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic population.
In their 2017 paper, the authors found that the increasing death rates are largely due to “drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality—particularly among those with a high school degree or less.”
Another team of economists from the University of California, Berkeley analyzed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention death data from 1999-2015 to see how policies could affect mortality rates related to deaths of despair. They compared states that raised their wages or the EITC above the federally mandated levels to those that kept them at the minimum.
While there was no significant difference in deaths by drug overdose, largely in line with the idea that overdose are closely related to drug availability, non-drug related suicides dropped remarkably. For adults without a college degree, a 10 percent increase in the EITC was associated with a 5.5 percent decrease in non-drug related suicides. Meanwhile, a 10 percent increase in minimum wage was associated with a 3.6 percent decrease.
“When they implement these policies, suicides fall very quickly,” said Berkeley economist Anna Godoey.