Just a few weeks ago, legislators in New York reached a deal to raise the minimum wage to $15. And while that’s certainly a big boost for incomes, it could also turn out to be a literal lifesaver.
Published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, a new study found that if $15 had been New York City’s minimum wage from 2008 to 2012, 2,800 to 5,500 premature deaths could have been averted, with the bulk of such avoided deaths occurring in low-income communities. To conduct the study, researchers used U.S. Census data to calculate how the proportion of low-income residents in each New York City neighborhood might have changed under a $15 minimum wage and then created an ecological model of premature death to determine how a hypothetical wage hike would have impacted mortality rates. (There is a wealth of scientific literature on the associations between income, health and life expectancy — here’s just one of the more recent ones from JAMA that found “higher income was associated with greater longevity.”)
Assuming the “most optimistic scenario” in which higher wages did not result in employment losses, researchers estimated that the city’s low-income population of people younger than 65 would fall from nearly 40 percent to about 34 percent. That means about 1.3 million low-income residents would have hypothetically experienced an annual income boost of about $10,000, from $26,700 to $36,100. In a more “pessimistic scenario,” researchers assumed the wage hike resulted in a 15 percent reduction in employment among workers earning between $7.15 and $15 an hour. Under that scenario, the low-income population younger than 65 would decrease from nearly 40 percent to about 37 percent.
Under the optimistic scenario, the study estimated that a $15 minimum wage would reduce New York City’s premature death rates by as much as 15 per 100,000 people. That translates to about 5,500 fewer premature deaths between 2008 and 2012, which is about 8 percent of total premature deaths in the city during that time period. In the pessimistic scenario, a wage hike would reduce the premature death rate by nearly 8 per 100,000, which would mean 2,800 fewer premature deaths and 4 percent of total premature deaths during the study period. Most of the avoided mortality would happen in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, “contributing to a narrowing of health inequities across the city,” researchers wrote.
The study also noted that with all other factors remaining constant, income may account for differences in premature deaths between New York City’s richest and poorest communities. For instance, in Central Harlem, where about 30 percent of residents live in poverty, the premature death rate is about four times higher than that of the much richer financial district. And while the authors urged caution when interpreting the study’s findings, they also said the findings add to a growing awareness that wages are central to good health.
“Until recently, state and local health departments have generally not taken positions on minimum wage debates, although the relationship between income and health has long been acknowledged,” the study stated. “This analysis adds to a growing body of work by health departments to resurrect the centrality of minimum wages to population health.”
To request a full copy of the study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.