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Could raising wages improve children's health?

UI researcher looks at link between changes in minimum wage, long-term health

“Children’s health is more malleable early in life and sensitive to changes like social or economic changes,” says George Wehby, University of Iowa College of Public Health professor and Health Management and Policy doctoral program director. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
“Children’s health is more malleable early in life and sensitive to changes like social or economic changes,” says George Wehby, University of Iowa College of Public Health professor and Health Management and Policy doctoral program director. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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In the ongoing national debate on raising minimum wage, much of the discussion has focused on hiring, recruitment and the costs to employers as well as on projected benefits for wage earners.

While 18 states saw higher minimum wages take effect with this new year, and others will have increases kick in during 2019, Iowa’s minimum wage remains at $7.25.

And now a new study led by a researcher at the University of Iowa will examine whether children’s health can be positively affected by an increase in their parents’ minimum wage.

“Children’s health is more malleable early in life and sensitive to changes like social or economic changes,” said Dr. George Wehby, a professor of health management and policy and health economics at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. “Effects of early life changes tend to accumulate over time.

“For example, positive effects, multiplied over time, on children’s health could lead to doing better in school, which will build over time and have long-term effects as they become adults.”

The two-year study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is headed by principal investigators Wehby and Robert Kaestner, research professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and Dhaval Dave, professor of economics at Bentley University.

The three researchers codesigned the project and statistical models. Wehby will supervise the data analysis.

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The researchers will analyze several data sets from nationwide surveys — broken down by state — with a combined span of nearly 30 years available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The study will link state-level data on the minimum wage to child-level data on development and health outcomes to examine how changes in minimum wage across states and over time have impacted a range of children’s health outcomes,” Wehby said.

Previous studies by Wehby, Kaestner and Dave have looked at the effects of insurance expansion on children’s health; the connections between children’s health and academic performance; prenatal care and infant health; and how global socioeconomic differences affect children’s health.

“Our general hypothesis is that increased minimum wage increases household income for low-wage working parents, which may lead to improved parental health, with reduced stress, residential stability, changes in child care arrangements, and greater use of health services like preventive health care.”

Another hypothesis they’ll examine is parental time use. Recent research suggests maternal time — time spent with their children — is positively linked to children’s health.

Cause and effects

The current study also will examine the effects of minimum wage on several areas that could affect children’s long-term health and outcomes:

• Parental time — how they use their time, working or with children

• Parental health behaviors and improvements, such as would smoking and alcohol use change? Would stress and mental health change?

• School choices, such as public versus private, which is linked to residential stability

• Consumption of goods and services

• Child care arrangements

• Use of welfare programs — would there be effects large enough to change things such as the need for food stamps?

Some preliminary studies have shown positive health effects for adults when their minimum wage has increased.

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“Some evidence has shown an increase in minimum wage linked to lower BMI (body mass index), which can be seen as a health improvement,” Wehby said.

There’s also evidence that, for both men and women, an increase in minimum wage led to a decrease in days reporting poor mental health.

The researchers plan to publish the results of their study. Whether or not the results lead to policy changes is another question.

“Examining if this policy has meaningful effects on health, especially children’s health, is useful for understanding the total impacts of minimum wage changes on the population,” Wehby said.

“If a policy has meaningful effects on health, especially children’s health, as we’ve seen in other studies, policies may not have to have dramatic effects for them to be meaningful for people.”

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted to gradually increase the countywide minimum wage in 2015, ultimately ending at $10.10 per hour. The Iowa Legislature, however, overturned higher minimum wage ordinances in Johnson, Linn and three other counties in 2018.

Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan is unsure that the new study, even if it finds direct links between raising minimum wage and children’s health, could affect policy changes locally.

“I’d like to be optimistic and say yes, but I don’t think anything meaningful will happen unless there’s a change in Des Moines,” Sullivan said. “Or unless the minimum wage is raised at the federal level and Iowa is compelled to change.”

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