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Raising the Minimum Wage Saves Lives

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Low wage workers take part in a protest organized by the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage outside the offices of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, May 30, 2013. The workers from restaurants and other trades who say there are rampant violations in minimum wage and other labor laws in New York were calling on Governor Cuomo to take action to ensure that all workers in New York receive a real increase in the minimum wage including workers who rely on tips from customers. Cuomo recently signed legislation to increase New York State’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour over the next three years. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES – Tags: CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)

No wonder Republicans hate the minimum wage, as raising it saves the lives of the poor they are indifferent to. Matthew Desmond has a long story on how this works. It’s very long but here’s an excerpt:

For years, when American policymakers have debated the minimum wage, they have debated its effect on the labor market. Economists have gone around and around, rehashing the same questions about how wage bumps for the poorest workers could reduce employment, raise prices or curtail hours. What most didn’t ask was: When low-wage workers receive a pay increase, how does that affect their lives?

But recently, a small group of researchers scattered around the country have begun to pursue this long-neglected question, specifically looking into the public-health effects of a higher minimum wage. A 2011 national study showed that low-skilled workers reported fewer unmet medical needs in states with higher minimum-wage rates. In high-wage states, workers were better able to pay for the care they needed. In low-wage states, workers skipped medical appointments. Or consider the research on smoking. Big Tobacco has long targeted low-income communities, where three in four smokers in America now live, but studies have found strong evidence that increases to the minimum wage are associated with decreased rates of smoking among low-income workers. Higher wages ease the grind of poverty, freeing up people’s capacities to quit.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of minimum wage increases are children. A 2017 study co-authored by Lindsey Bullinger, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, found that raising the minimum wage by $1 would reduce child-neglect reports by almost 10 percent. Higher wages allow parents working in the low-wage labor market to keep the lights on and the refrigerator stocked; failing to do so can court neglect charges. “These studies show the positive externalities of increasing the minimum wage on serious outcomes, like reducing child abuse,” Bullinger said, issuing an eloquent barb at economists’ obsession with the “negative externalities” of minimum-wage hikes.

The list goes on. Studies have linked higher minimum wages to decreases in low birth-weight babies, lower rates of teen alcohol consumption and declines in teen births. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that between roughly 2,800 and 5,500 premature deaths that occurred in New York City from 2008 to 2012 could have been prevented if the city’s minimum wage had been $15 an hour during that time, instead of a little over $7 an hour. That number represents up to one in 12 of all people who died prematurely in those five years. The chronic stress that accompanies poverty can be seen at the cellular level. It has been linked to a wide array of adverse conditions, from maternal health problems to tumor growth. Higher wages bring much-needed relief to poor workers. The lead author of the 2016 study, Tsu-Yu Tsao, a research director at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was “very surprised by the magnitude of the findings.” He is unaware of any drug on the market that comes close to having this big of an effect.

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. Poverty will never be ameliorated on the cheap. But this truth should not prevent us from acknowledging how powerfully workers respond to relatively small income boosts.

Labor rights aren’t just a policy debate. They are a moral crusade. If you don’t support workers’ rights, you simply don’t have a strong moral compass. This is about saving people’s lives, both in the current generation and our future generations. There is no room for “economic moderates” in the future of the Democratic Party. This is as much of a moral question as reproductive rights and gay marriage. While we can debate around the edges of specific policies, you either support a dignified life for the working class or you don’t.

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