One of the most appalling articles in recent memory comes from the people at National Public Radio. Entitled “Raising The Minimum Wage By $1 May Prevent Thousands Of Suicides, Study Shows,” it refers to a report in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
This conclusion is troubling on many levels. First is the suspicion that NPR is using science (or pseudo-science) to drive a political outcome. The author insinuates that we must raise the minimum wage lest it causes thousands to suffer needless despair and death. A second troubling factor is a disregard for the economic evidence that shows that raising the minimum wage harms the overall economy and the lives of its presumed beneficiaries.
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However, the most troubling aspect of this article is that it promotes a favorite error of modernists and secularists – that happiness comes with material prosperity.
The Need for Material Goods
This error is the essence of materialism–the doctrine that holds that the only or the highest values lie in material well-being and progress. Part of the allure of the error is that we do legitimately need basic material things to sustain life. Material goods cannot be ignored. Without food, clothing, and shelter, we die.
Additionally, each of us has unique needs. We inherit a set of inclinations, dispositions and talents that make needs different for each person. The individual needs to find the material means to develop those particular inclinations. Without them, both the individual and society suffer.
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Thus, virtue requires that we meet both basic and unique needs for ourselves and our dependents. Therefore, private property of varying degrees is not only desirable but essential. Some people can even pursue the higher virtue of charity by helping others to meet their needs.
The Materialism Trap
The materialist trap is that people often sense an intensity of desire so strong that it becomes the highest priority. Satan is extremely adept at temptation in this area. He has many helpers in modern life. Marketing convinces people that they “need” the things that the advertiser sells. When a neighbor gets a new car, we become increasingly aware of the deficiencies in our vehicles. Tales of our co-worker’s vacation convince us that we deserve a similar respite. It is easy to become discouraged when the accouterments of “the good life” appear to be out of reach.
The “psychobabble” of modern culture presents such discouragement as a primary cause of clinical depression. Elevating an uncomfortable emotion into a psychiatric disorder heightens the perception that the individual is incapable of alleviating, or even understanding, their situation.
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The study mentioned above alludes to this when its results of the study are summarized. “Minimum wage increases appear to reduce the suicide rate among those with a high school education or less and may reduce disparities between socioeconomic groups. Effects appear greatest during periods of high unemployment.”
The NPR article asserts an even more direct connection, “An increase of $2 in each state’s minimum wage could have prevented more than 57,000 suicides. “This is a way that you can, it seems, improve the well-being of people working at lower-wage jobs and their dependents,” says John Kaufman, the lead author on the study and an epidemiology doctoral student at Emory University.”
Such direct correlation flies in the face of evidence that depression and suicide in today’s rich democracies are rising at record rates. Material goods do not always bring happiness. Other more spiritual factors like relationships, accomplishments and religious devotions are much more likely to make people happier.
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In his book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go, author John Horvat notes that people are spiritual beings with spiritual needs. He states that “Purely material goods will always frustrate us since they cannot satisfy the demands of our spiritual nature; they cannot satisfy our longings for eternal goods, which ultimately find their plenitude in God Himself.”
God’s Purpose in Adversity
Shortsighted as it is, NPR’s worldview feeds a collectivist agenda. It defines all “needs” in materialistic terms. When people lack the means to obtains pre-determined income levels, the socialists assert that only the government can help them.
Left unsaid are certain facts that do not fit the socialist mold. Most people decide, for example, when their education will cease. Lower education does not mean the person will not prosper. The left also rejects the fact that the minimum wage is a transitional state for most workers and a stepping stone to a better-paid position.
Finally, there is the notion that all adversity is unjust and destructive. However, God often our misfortunes as a “wake-up call,” informing us that it is time to leave destructive behaviors behind and embark on a new course.
Free Will as God’s Gift to All
In short, people are not forced to kill themselves because they are poor. The simple truth is that God endows all people with free will to change our lives and find happiness, even when poor. Socialism and its close associate, materialism, remove that freedom by assuming economic conditions determine happiness.
However, many other factors help people cope with adversity and obtain levels of satisfaction in life. In 1992, A. Värnik and D. Wasserman studied the suicide rate in the recently-overthrown Soviet Union. Their results were instructive. “In regions of long‐standing traditional lifestyles, strong religious faith and multi‐generation families (the Caucasus and Central Asia), the suicide rate was low, whereas in regions with sociopolitical antagonisms (Baltic States) and forced social changes (Russia), it was high.” They further found that the suicide rate decreased after 1984, as hopes for a new regime increased.
People whose individuality was deliberately stripped from them by the socialist system fared badly. That system tore them from their families, traditions, and Faith. Those who lack these essential elements in life are far more likely to commit suicide than the lack of an extra dollar in the minimum wage. Losing a sense of God-given free will is the cancer; the extra dollar is only a bandage.