Raising minimum wage benefits health of poor mothers and their babies, study finds

19 July 2023

Isabel Webb Carey | (TNS) Bloomberg News

Raising the hourly minimum wage holds unexpected benefits for low-income pregnant women and their children, with increases as small as $1 helping to fend off events linked to poor health, researchers found.

Pregnant women in U.S. states that increased the minimum wage were less likely to encounter high-stress incidents — like being unable to pay bills — in the year before delivery, according to research published Tuesday in the JAMA Network Open medical journal. Other disruptive occurrences linked to poor maternal health, such the incarceration of a partner, were also less likely, according to the study of nearly 200,000 women across 39 states who gave birth between January 2004 and December 2015.

U.S. rates of pregnancy-related death more than doubled in the last 20 years, especially among minorities, according to a separate study published this month in JAMA that found Black women are more than twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their White peers. Women in low-income communities are also more vulnerable to events that magnify stress, even as simple as changing one’s address, that raise the risk for premature delivery, low birth weight, high blood pressure and pregnancy-related depression.

The maternal health crisis “really is at the national level,” said Slawa Rokicki, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health who helped write the study. “Public policies and social policies can be a really powerful way to address the inequities in our society around maternal health.”

‘Cash transfer’

Low-wage U.S. workers have made gains in the last few years, with a 9% increase in real wages between 2019 and 2022, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Still, the federal minimum wage has remained fixed at $7.25 an hour since 2009, while the value of wages has dropped by more than 20%, according to estimates. The immobility of the federal minimum wage means that low-salary workers remain vulnerable to the pressures of a recession or depression, according to the think tank.

Minimum hourly pay across various states range from the current federal level to as much as $17, and the researchers estimate that increasing the federal minimum wage to $12 could decrease stressful events linked to poor child and maternal health by 18%.

Increasing the wage is like “giving a large cash transfer to the most disadvantaged families,” Rokicki said. “So increasing the minimum wage would really lift a lot of families out of poverty.”

Better wages improve access to critical health determinants, such as health services, insurance and nutritious food. The impact of increases as small as $1 were particularly noticeable among Hispanic women, who are more likely to earn the minimum wage, according to Rokicki and her colleagues, Nancy Reichman of Rutgers University in New Jersey and Mark McGovern of Stanford University School of Medicine in California.


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