Study links suicide and public welfare spending

by Michelle Kibiger

Put a Republican and a Democrat together in the same room and they will likely argue what role the government should play in people’s lives.
The debate over the government’s role in protecting the public welfare has become especially contentious in past months as Congress debated fundamental reforms to federal social services.
However, a study by University family social science professor Shirley Zimmerman, which shows a correlation between suicide rates and how much money is spent on social services, takes an entirely new perspective on the government’s role.
“Many people have the state of mind that the government is the enemy,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t appreciate the many different ways government helps people.”
As Zimmerman defines them, public welfare expenditures involve much more than food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits. They involve Medicaid, suicide prevention programs, and other programs which are intended to help those with particular material and social needs.
According to Zimmerman’s study, public welfare spending was the only reliable predictor of suicide rates in 1990 — the last year in which complete census figures are available. She also said that some hospital expenditures can predict suicide rates, considering that most hospitals rely on Medicaid for 50 to 80 percent of their revenue.
These findings are all tied to Zimmerman’s premise that the more burdens placed on the members of society, the more the government needs to be a part of those lives. She said that if the government does not keep supporting these needs, portions of society will break down.
Within the current context of potential welfare cuts, the study’s findings deserve attention, Zimmerman said. With the passing of the welfare reform legislation last summer, the states will soon have more direct responsibility for how welfare dollars are spent.
Segments of the population will suffer problems “unless the states start divvying up for people,” Zimmerman said.
Experts at the Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education depression awareness project point to fatigue, disturbances in a person’s regular life patterns and a feeling of helplessness as major predictors of depression, a disease which can lead to suicide.
The group’s speakers bureau gives presentations to student groups regularly. The literature they provide to students emphasizes that individuals who are contemplating suicide have lost their ability to look into the future because their present negative situations are consuming their lives.
Analysts suggest that 200,000 welfare recipients in Minnesota will feel the effects of Congress’ welfare reform package. Those receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits and aid to immigrants in Minnesota will feel the greatest effects, because the federal package estimates eliminating $55 million from those two programs alone.
“The findings give evidence to the proposition that people do indeed react to societal institutions that normatively function to bind them to the larger society,” she said. Zimmerman added that governmental institutions have the responsibility to actively protect those connections.