Poverty, Age and Suicide

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bag ladyLooking at people dealing with their first cycle in poverty and we see interesting corrolations between poverty, suicide and age.


On February 19, 2009 The New York Times published an article by Patricia Cohen entitled “Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers.” Cohen quotes from “a new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The study shows that the suicide rate among 45-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied. For women in this age bracket the rate rose 31 percent and for men the rate was 15.6 percent.

This is a great increase when compared to the less than 2 percent suicide rate for 15-to-19-year-olds, who have been the intense scrutiny of news attention and prevention resources.

Cohen said, “For officials it is a surprising and baffling public health mystery. . . .The question is why. What happened in 1999 that caused the suicide rate to suddenly rise primarily in midlife? For health experts it is like discovering the wreckage of a plane crash without finding the little black box that recorded flight data just before the aircraft went down.”

I believe that the answer lies in the realm of poverty spells. We have seen that the foreclosure rate began increasing around the year 2001. This means that economic problems in the home began some time before. Even though the economy may not have been in cinque with the spell, this is one way to look at the outcomes. Economic peaks and troughs for the time around 1999 indicated that there was a peak in March 2001 followed by a trough in November 2001, following 9-11. Standard and Poors 500 had a peak in August 2000 and a trough in September 2001. While it appears that the state of the economy in 1999 was on an upsurge at that time, let’s look at some poverty figures for 1997-1999.

The U.S. Census Bureau published “Dynamics of Economic Well-Being Moving Up and Down the Income Ladder, 1998-1999,” issued April 2005, using SIPP data. From 1997 to 1998 32.9 percent of the sample had a decrease in income of 5 percent or more. In 1998-1999 the percent was 34.4. Looking at the age groups 45-64 in Table 1 shows that 36.2 percent had an income drop of 5 percent or more. This is above the average. Could the major drop in income be the trigger for the rise in suicides? That’s the way it looks.

The Elderly

Another area we need to look at historically is poverty spells of the elderly, particularly elderly women, since they live longer than men. In “Changing Social Security Survivorship Benefits and the Poverty of Widows” by Michael D. Hurd, State University of New York, Stony Brook and NBER and David A. Wise, Harvard University and NBER, publish date unknown but after 1990, Hurd and Wise state that:

Social Security is the most important component of the income of most elderly families in the United States. In 1988 Social Security benefits were 45.9 percent of the income of elderly unmarried women (Grad, 1990). One-third of unmarried women relied on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income; 20 percent had income only from Social Security. It is not surprising, therefore, that the drop in Social Security benefits at the death of the husband could have large effects on the economic status of the surviving widow, particularly those at the lower end of the income distribution, and that the incidence of poverty would be high among elderly widows (p.1).

Hurd and Wise show that the transition to widowhood increases poverty. Among couples with incomes above the poverty line in 1975, the poverty rate of the surviving widows in 1977 was 37 percent. Hurd and Wise spent the rest of this article seeing how the lowering the amount of Social Security to couples could positively impact widows.

An article on the AARP website on January 28, 2008 was “Low-Income /Poverty: Older Persons Find it Hardest to Exit Poverty;” Research Report; Ke Bin Wu; AARP Public Policy Institute; May 2001. Wu used the PSID to track the long-term poverty status of the same individuals over the 1982-1992 period. Some of his conclusions were that escaping from poverty was more difficult for older than for younger age groups.

For example, for an older person who was in a poverty spell of one year, the probability of exiting from poverty was 35.2 percent compared to 40.3 percent for a person under age 65. . . . .over one-third of older persons who were ever poor completed their poverty spell in one year, and about 58 percent of older persons who were ever poor remained in poverty three years of fewer. On the other hand, nearly 31 percent of completed poverty spells of older persons who were ever poor can be expected to last ten or more years. . . . the exit probability was 44.6 percent for older men but only 32.1 percent for older women who had spent one year in poverty.

It readily becomes apparent that there is a link between poverty, age and suicide. For more information, see Amazon.com’s

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