CHICAGO — With one in 10 people in the United States living in poverty, and with many working people unable to afford essentials they need to stay healthy, the American Medical Association (AMA) today adopted policy during the Annual Meeting of its House of Delegates affirming that poverty is detrimental to health, and advocating for federal, state, and local policies regarding minimum wage that include plans for adjusting the wage level in the future to keep pace with inflation.
The AMA also affirmed that minimum wage policies should be consistent with the AMA’s principle that the highest attainable standard of health is a basic human right and that optimizing the social determinants of health is an ethical obligation of a civil society.
“Simply put, decreasing poverty improves health,” said AMA Trustee David H. Aizuss, M.D. “The COVID-19 pandemic created a concurrent public health and economic crisis that exposed and exacerbated access to care and other social inequities. Not only has the pandemic disproportionally impacted minoritized and marginalized communities, but economic insecurity, housing insecurity, and food insecurity have disproportionately burdened communities of color and other historically marginalized populations – all highlighting in stark relief the fact that people with low incomes have worse health outcomes. Too many people are working full-time jobs – sometimes more than one job – and are unable to rise above poverty wages. That must change.”
The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour translates to an annual wage of $15,080, if working 40 hours per week for all 52 weeks of the year. Workers striving to support a family on the federal minimum wage qualify for federal poverty assistance. Currently, full-time work at the federal minimum wage rate is insufficient for a single parent to support even a single child above the federal poverty line, but in 1968, the federal minimum wage was sufficient to keep a family of three out of poverty. Additionally, the declining value of the minimum wage has been found to be the key driver of the growth of inequality between low-wage and middle-wage workers since the late 1970s. In contrast, a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour has been predicted to raise family income for 14.4 million children, or nearly one-fifth of all US children.
Poverty exacerbates health inequities because women and people from racial and ethnic groups are more likely to earn low wages. Black and Hispanic individuals and families specifically are disproportionately represented among minimum wage workers. In addition, studies have found that populations with high- and rising-income inequality are associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, obesity, mental illness, homicide, and other measures compared to populations with a more equitable income distribution. A large body of research on wage, income, and health finds that policy interventions striving to increase the incomes of low-income populations will improve both economic measures (increasing income equality and economic security) and health measures (lower mortality rates, improve overall population health status, decrease health inequity, and lower overall health care costs).
Approximately 88 percent of minimum wage workers in the U.S. are over 20 years old, and the average age is 35.7. Based on 2019 data, approximately 48 percent of the people earning at or below the federal minimum wage have some college education, nearly 67 percent are female, and approximately 45 percent work full-time. Most workers are in food service occupations (55 percent), and many others work in sales and related occupations (8.5 percent) or personal care and service roles (6.6 percent). Approximately 28 percent of low-wage workers have children, which places many children at risk of living in poverty. Researchers have estimated that there would be 2,790 fewer low-birthweight births and 518 fewer post neonatal deaths annually if all states raised the minimum wage by one dollar.
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