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The Minimum Wage and Maternal and Newborn Health

Conversations on minimum wage hikes have focused largely on the economic impacts it would have on families and states. But new research lays out the potential benefits that an increase in the minimum wage could have on poor women, their health, and the health of their children.

Women make up 64% of the 4.2 million workers earning minimum wage or less. These aren’t just teenagers working seasonal retail. The vast majority are adults. Almost 80% of women living on minimum wage are 20 or older. Approximately 40% are over 30.

working-woman-and-baby.jpgConsidering the fact that two-thirds of these women have children and are co-breadwinners or primary breadwinners, it’s alarming that close to 3 million of them support themselves and their families on less than $15,000 a year. When rent, gas, and groceries are on the line, health can easily fall by the wayside.

Research shows that women with low incomes have a higher risk for premature births due to a variety of health issues like obesity, smoking, diabetes, drug use, and poor prenatal and maternal health. Premature babies, in turn, are more susceptible to a range of problems, from acute respiratory, central nervous system, hearing, and vision problems to long-term motor, cognitive, visual, hearing, behavioral, and growth issues. In addition to the emotional costs for the family, the financial burden of premature births is staggering: In 2005, the societal economic burden of preterm births was a whopping $26.2 billion.

Studies Suggest Increasing the Minimum Wage Will Improve the Health of Low-Income Mothers and Children

Two studies published this year suggest raising the minimum wage as a solution for improving maternal and newborn health.

If New York City had had a $15 minimum wage between 2008 and 2012, it could have “averted 2,800 to 5,500 premature deaths,” mostly in poor communities of color.

In a white paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers focused on women with low educational status and studied state-level minimum wages and their effect on birth weight, length of gestation, and fetal development among births between 1989 and 2012. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed the effects of changes to state minimum wages on low birth weight rates and infant mortality.

The authors of the NBER paper found that higher wages led to better prenatal health, reduced maternal smoking, and a “small, significant and beneficial effect… on birth weight due to both a decrease in preterm birth (increase in gestation) and increase in fetal growth (gestation‐adjusted birth weight).” And the AJPH study concluded that “a dollar increase in the minimum wage above the federal level was associated with a 1% to 2% decrease in low birth weight births and a 4% decrease in postneonatal mortality.”

A study published earlier this year puts these findings into perspective: If New York City had had a $15 minimum wage between 2008 and 2012, it could have “averted 2,800 to 5,500 premature deaths,” mostly in poor communities of color. Another study found that if all states had increased their minimum wages by $1 in 2014, almost 3,000 low birth weight births and more than 500 infant deaths may have been prevented in that year alone.

For a poor mothers, especially those who are uninsured, extra income opens the door to better medical care, more financial security, and reduced stress, all factors that are linked to the health of their children. As the NBER paper rightly points out, non-labor market outcomes like health typically don’t factor into the debate. These new findings should compel economists and policymakers to consider the potential labor market benefits and improved health outcomes that could result from higher incomes.

Topics: Health Disparities Childhood Development Social Determinants of Health