UMN researchers to examine relationship between minimum wage, health

UMN researchers will investigate association between increased minimum wage and obesity.

$15 an hour protesters take to the streets on East Bank on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

Image by Chris Dang, Daily File Photo

$15 an hour protesters take to the streets on East Bank on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

by Michelle Griffith

A University of Minnesota study will evaluate the effect Minneapolis’ $15 minimum wage ordinance could have on obesity in minimum-wage employees. 

The natural experiment, funded by a $3.5 million National Institutes of Health grant, will compare the health of Minneapolis employees to minimum wage employees in Raleigh, North Carolina over five years. The city is demographically similar to Minneapolis, but North Carolina law prohibits cities from raising the minimum wage above $7.25, so researchers hope the conditions will allow them to analyze whether wage increases impact health.

“Minneapolis is really in the spotlight right now as far as answering the question, ‘What happens when you do this?’” said assistant University professor and principle investigator Caitlin Caspi.

Through manipulated simulations, past research has shown that higher wages are associated with better health, but this study will be the first to track individuals and their health as income increases naturally, Caspi said.

On July 1, the minimum wage in Minneapolis will increase to either $10.25 or $11.25 depending on the size of the business. After a series of incremental increases, the city’s minimum wage will be $15 in about four years. The ordinance was approved by the City Council last summer, following contentious debate.

Many people believe the minimum wage ordinance is the start of a slippery slope of government intervention, said John Budd, professor of works and organizations at the Carlson School of Management.

Increasing minimum wage sparks belief among some that the government is interfering in business too much, while others hope it could reduce poverty and increase safety, Budd said.

A minimum wage increase affects multiple aspects of a person’s life, but this study will track food purchases and diet changes of 450 employees in each city throughout the wage increase process.

After each increase, researchers will evaluate each of the participants’ food receipts, pay stubs, survey results and height and weight, Caspi said.

Income and obesity are related through food access, said Samuel Myers, Jr., director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

“We long have known that low income diets are high in unhealthy foods — often fast foods — which are related to many precursors to poor health later in life,” Myers Jr. said.

Experts say there is some evidence that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food, which could be why people earning low wages tend to have worse health than people with higher incomes.

Employees living near the poverty level tend to have higher stress levels, get fewer hours of sleep and eat an inadequate amount of food, said Celeste Robinson, co-director of minimum wage advocacy group 15 Now Minnesota.

Robinson said if people had more wages to spend, one of the first changes they would make is purchasing healthier food for themselves and their families.