Low Wages as Occupational Health Hazards

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The history of occupational medicine has been characterized by ever-widening recognition of hazards, from fires in 1911 to asbestos in the 1960s, to job strain in the 1990s. In this essay, we argue for broadening the recognition further to include low wages. We first review possible mechanisms explaining the effects of wages on health or health behaviors. Mechanisms involve self-esteem, job satisfaction, deprivation, social rank, the “full” price of bad health, patience, and the ability to purchase health-producing goods and services. Second, we discuss empirical studies that rely on large, typically national, data sets and statistical models that use either instrumental variables or natural experiments and also account for other family income. Finally, we draw implications for laws governing minimum wages and labor unions.

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