Health impacts are mixed when the minimum wage is raised

Where to set the minimum wage, or whether to set one at all, is one of the most contentious political questions in these divided times. A new study focused on health outcomes may give argumentation ammunition to all sides.

Analyzing data drawn from responses of more than 131,000 U.S. adults participating in the federal National Health Interview Survey, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle found that, overall, individuals earning the minimum wage when it went up experienced no health effects one way or the other.

But when the team drilled down into various demographic subgroups, they found both positive and negative impacts.

For example, on the one hand, a minimum-wage increase was associated with deleterious weight gain in working-age people of color. On the other, higher minimum wages were associated with less hypertension among all working-age men—and more hypertension in working-age women.

The study was published online Feb. 10 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

To adjust for factors not having to do with earning the minimum wage, the researchers assessed health outcomes of respondents with less formal education alongside outcomes of those with more formal education. The working assumption was that the less formal education one has, the more likely one is to earn the minimum wage.

Health outcomes appearing in both groups were assumed to have been brought about by factors other than changes to the minimum wage.

In coverage of the study published by UW’s news division, co-author Heather Hill, PhD, an associate professor at the UW Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, says the mixed results “shine a spotlight on segments of the population that need to be studied in relation to rising minimum wages in order to learn how best to achieve the goal of reducing inequality with adjustments to the minimum wage.”

The researchers state their findings warrant further research into the potential effects of wage earnings on health status.

“[W]e should be looking at the effect [of minimum-wage policy] overall, but we should also consider how it is affecting different groups,” says the study’s lead author, James Buszkiewicz, a PhD candidate in epidemiology. “If there is evidence that minimum wage or any policy is affecting groups differently, that’s something to home in on for further investigation.”

Hill points out that cities and counties are increasing minimum wages “with very good intentions, which is to benefit lower-earning workers and reduce inequality, and yet we still need more research evidence on the effects of the minimum wage on health. In particular, we need to understand how it affects different types of workers differently.”