Katie Wyant-Stein: Increase Utah’s minimum wage to get healthier babies

Being born into poverty pre-disposes children to physical and mental health problems throughout life.

Poverty’s negative impacts on development begin before a child is even born. Poverty can “get beneath the skin” of a child via experiencing high amounts of prenatal stress.

When pregnant mothers are exposed to stress, cortisol – the stress hormone – is released into the bloodstream and passes onto the fetus through the placenta. High exposure to cortisol during pregnancy has a biological imprint on the development of the fetus’ own stress regulation systems. Therefore, when children in poverty arrive in the world, they may already have altered physiology. On average, their altered physiology, and experiences after birth, puts them at higher risk for developing physical and mental health problems throughout their lifespan.

In the state of Utah, approximately 1 in 9 children are living in below the federal poverty line. Utah follows the federal standard for minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (set in 2008) despite being the state with one of the highest increases of cost of living in the last few years.

In 2020, approximately 73% of Utah renters were priced out of the median home price. From 2020 to 2021 alone, the housing prices in Utah have increased by 28.3%. Our state minimum wage has not caught up to these skyrocketing trends. Many may see minimum wage as an economic policy due to its impact on labor demand, economic growth and efficiency. But minimum wage is also a family policy. By keeping our minimum wage at the federal status quo, we are actively doing a disservice to Utah children and families and are forcing them into poverty.

Increasing the state minimum wage will not be “throwing away money” in hopes of a miraculous solution to poverty. Increasing household income for those in poverty will positively impact child development outcomes. A recent study has shown that simply giving mothers in poverty more money per month is related to changes in the infant brain.

In this randomized controlled study, 1,000 mothers with an average yearly income of $20,000 were separated into two groups. One group of mothers were given a gift of $333 dollars per month to use however they wished, and the other group of mothers were given only $20 per month. After only one year, researchers have found distinct differences between the groups. In the group of mothers who were given more money, their one-year-old infants had higher amounts of brain activity than the infants whose mothers were given the smaller cash gift. In previous research, this increased brain activity has been associated with better language, cognitive, social and emotional skills.

With Utah having the highest fertility rate in the country, it is vital that our state considers how minimum wage policies are impacting our children’s development. Raising the minimum wage is one way in which the state can support our families and the development of our future generations. The state of Utah prides itself on being a family-friendly and family-centered state where we value the development of our children. Maintaining the current minimum wage opposes these values and attitudes by directly putting our children at risk for mental and physical health problems before they are even born.

I am urging the public to call on our legislators and express the need for increased minimum wage as a direct aid to our children and families. I am also calling on legislators to put action toward raising the minimum wage and to give the children in the state of Utah the best chance at healthy development starting before they are even born.

Katie E. Wyant-Stein

Katie Wyant-Stein is a developmental psychology Ph.D. student at the University of Utah.