Notable quotes on wages and public health

Higher income is linked to longer life expectancy, less activity limitation due to chronic illnesses, and fewer adults and children with reported fair or poor health. While discussions at the federal level on raising the minimum wage are going nowhere, state and local health commissioners are weighing in on the connection between income and health.

TPH’s Kim Krisberg writes in the March issue of The Nation’s Health on why increases in the minimum wage are a public health issue. Rex Archer, MD, MPH, Director of the Kansas City, MO Department of Health told Krisberg:

…[achieving] “a living wage has become one of the most important public health issues for us, period. …We can’t ignore the stress of not having a living wage and what that’s doing to our population.”

The minimum wage in Missouri is $7.65 per hour (the federal minimum wage is $7.25) and for tipped employees it is $3.825 per hour (federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13.)

Krisberg also spoke to Minnesota’s State Health Commissioner, Edward Ehlinger, MD, MSPH. That state’s lawmakers passed a bill in April 2014 increasing the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2016. Beginning in 2018, it will automatically adjust for inflation.

“I’d argue that it was the biggest public health achievement in that legislative session—and probably in the four years I’ve been health commissioner. Not even the tobacco tax increase the year before is not as powerful as the minimum wage increase,” Ehlinger told Krisberg.

He added:

“If you look at the conditions that impact health, income is right at the top of the list. Anything we can do to help enhance economic stability will have a huge public health benefit. This is a major public health issue.”

Ehlinger is not shy about sharing his views. He writes a blog post every couple of weeks, and unlike most blog posts with bylines of an agency chief, Ehlinger’s read as original. Just before the state legislature completed deliberations on the minimum wage bill, a commentary by the health commissioner was featured in the Minnesota Post. He wrote:

“When people think about minimum wage, they most often think about the impact on their bank account and their job. But policies that impact employment and income are actually about health – the health of individuals, families and communities. …Health improves with increasing income, and the impacts of a rise in income are greatest for those at the lowest end of the wage scale. Moving from the lowest income level to the next lowest provides the largest percentage increase in life expectancy and health status.”

Ehlinger indicated the lawmakers’ plan to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour would lift more than 350,000 Minnesotans out of poverty.

“As Minnesota’s health commissioner and as a physician, I prescribe an increase in the minimum wage to improve the lives and health of vulnerable children and families. It will be a great investment in the health of individuals, families, communities, and our state.”