A couple months ago, we reported on a study that found raising the minimum wage to $15 could have prevented thousands of premature deaths in New York City alone. Now comes more science on the life-saving benefits of higher wages — this one found that just a modest increase in the minimum wage could have saved the lives of hundreds of babies. It’s yet another reminder that the movement for a living wage is also a movement toward a healthier nation for all.
Published last week in the American Journal of Public Health, the study examined the impact of state-based minimum wage laws on the rate of babies born with low birth weights as well as on post-neonatal mortality, which is the death of an infant within the first year of life. To conduct the study, researchers analyzed state-level minimum wages in all 50 states from 1980 though 2011 as well as infant health data from the National Vital Statistics System. They then estimated the impact of minimum wage on infant health outcomes using a difference-in-differences approach, which allows researchers to control for other factors that might influence newborn health.
Study authors Kelli Komro, Melvin Livingston, Sara Markowitz and Alexander Wagenaar introduce their research with this:
Previous research has consistently linked low income with increased risk of premature mortality throughout the life span. As a stark example, the U.S. excess infant mortality rate (defined in comparison with 4 peer countries) during the postneonatal period (28–364 days) is driven almost entirely by excess infant deaths among mothers of lower socioeconomic status. Low birth weight is also a sensitive consequence of low income, has been established as one of the most important predictors of infant mortality, and increases the risk of deleterious health and economic effects into adulthood. Alarmingly, more than 1 in 4 women giving birth in the United States are below poverty level.
Overall, researchers found a “consistent pattern” of health improvements tied to a state minimum wage that was higher than the federal minimum wage. In tracking more than 200 changes in state-level minimum wages over 31 years, they found that a $1 increase in the state wage above the federal minimum was associated with a 1 to 2 percent decrease in low birth weight births as well as a 4 percent decrease in post-neonatal deaths. That means if all states had bumped up their minimum wages by $1 in 2014, it may have prevented nearly 2,800 low birth weight births and more than 500 infant deaths in that year alone, the study found.
The authors noted that their findings add to the growing literature on how to “ameliorate poverty and its deleterious health effects.”
“The pain and suffering from the deaths of so many infants in their first year of life are incalculable,” the authors wrote. “That past modest changes to state minimum wage laws appear to have had such important effects bodes well for possible beneficial effects of a range of minimum wage increases currently under active public discussion and policy-maker consideration.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.