Illustration of different types of workers with heart and money signs above their heads

The effect of living wage laws

Over the last 25 years, many cities have enacted laws that boost income for some low-wage workers well above the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour. Some policies also include other benefits, such as access to affordable health insurance, paid sick leave and wage rates tied to inflation.

Mustafa Hussein, an assistant professor of public health policy and administration in the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, led a study about the effects of these living wage laws. It compared conditions in 18 metro areas with living wage laws implemented between 1997 and 2006 to 40 without.

Mustafa Hussein

Researchers used a database that’s documented health outcomes and health care experiences of populations in a national sample of 58 cities, including Milwaukee, since 1996. Then they collected data on whether these cities implemented living wage ordinances and the ordinances’ provisions, including effective dates, mandated wage amounts and other benefits. They also collected data on federal and state minimum wage levels and the cities’ historical social, economic and political characteristics.

Preliminary findings suggest low-wage workers, on average, saw a 14 percent drop in depressive symptoms, a 21 percent drop in reporting unmet medical care needs and a 15 percent increase in attempts to quit smoking. Participants in those cities said they were less likely to delay medical care due to cost. “The more generous the living wage policy,” Hussein says, “the greater the health rewards we found.”

A second phase of the study will rely on quantitative markers of health, such as blood pressure and measures of obesity, along with behaviors like smoking and exercise. The work is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The UWM research team includes Phoenix Do, a Zilber School associate professor; Scott Adams, a professor of economics in the College of Letters & Science; and research assistant Mikaela Becker.