Paying the lowest earners less than a living wage, all too common in countries including the UK and US, leaves even full-time workers unable to lift their families out of poverty. The resulting harm goes far beyond unpaid bills.
Poverty separates people from resources such as healthcare and safe housing. Those in poverty experience more wear and tear from stress than the rest of us, and are sicker and die earlier. Their children are more likely to be depressed and to have trouble at school. Their newborns are more likely to die in infancy.
Often, the first response is charitable mental health and medical services. But one of the best public health interventions would be a living wage.
Poverty’s physical and emotional toll is catalysed by the marginalisation of poor people. Social exclusion means they often live outside the scope of therapeutic, vocational, social, civic and cultural resources.
"When families moved out of poverty, children’s symptom rates began to decline."
Research indicates that this experience of “outsiderness” hurts because it reduces cognitive and emotional function. It also has a physical dimension: brain activity associated with social exclusion has been shown to parallel that of bodily pain.
Could raising people’s incomes improve their health? Studies say yes. One of the most striking examples looked at the impact of a community-wide income rise when a casino was built on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. The study compared psychiatric assessments of children before and after this event. When families moved out of poverty, children’s symptom rates began to decline.
By the fourth year out of poverty, the symptom rates were indistinguishable from children who had never been poor.
Every day, low-wage earners do the work that we need them to do (and often, that we wouldn’t wish to do ourselves).
When we allow them to go home with poverty-level wages, we relegate them to the social margins, risking the physical and psychological health of families and communities.
A living wage, on the other hand, means that people who are upholding their end of the social contract never get left on the outside looking in.
This article appeared in print under the headline “The only way is up”.