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Public Policies and Suicide Rates in the American States


We are interested in the relationship between public policies and outcomes measuring quality of life. There is no outcome more final than the ending of one’s own life. Accordingly, we test the relationship between public policy regimes and suicide rates in the American states. Controlling for other relevant factors (most notably a state’s stock of social capital), we find that states with higher per capita public assistance expenditures tend to have lower suicide rates. This relationship is of significant magnitude when translated into potential lives saved each year. We also find that general state policy liberalism and the governing ideologies of state governments are linked to suicide rates. In response to a growing literature on the importance of non-political factors such as social connectedness in determining quality of life, these findings demonstrate that government policies remain important determinates as well.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In a parallel literature, several cross-national studies have found that countries with more generous welfare expenditures tend to have lower criminal homicide rates (Fiala and LaFree 1988; Gartner 1991; Messner and Rosenfeld 1997).

  2. 2.

    Muntaner and Lynch (1999, p. 59) also point out that “an emphasis on social cohesion can be used to render communities responsible for their mortality and morbidity rates: a community-level version of ‘blaming the victim.’”

  3. 3.

    We provide the source and descriptive statistics for our data in the appendix (see Table A.1).

  4. 4.

    The Comprehensive Social Capital Index does not include measures for Hawaii or Alaska. Thus, in all analyses, the universe of cases is the forty-eight remaining states.

  5. 5.

    State measures of residential mobility, divorce rate, and unemployment rate are yearly values averaged across 1990–2000.

  6. 6.

    Another literature points to the importance of the way in which social services are delivered to citizens (as opposed to spending levels) in the prevention of suicide (e.g., Garland and Zigler 1993; Miller et al. 1984). In relation to our results, it may be that states with higher levels of public assistance spending are also more effective in their delivery of services aimed at preventing suicides. This is a matter for further research.

  7. 7.

    We find that this result is unchanged when each of the individual components that make up the Social Capital Index are used instead of the index in the model specification for Table 1. Also, the four measures of state spending and social capital correlate at no higher than 0.23, indicating that they are measuring different concepts. While there are strong theoretical reasons to expect that a state’s stock of social capital may influence the tone and type of public policies implemented, there is little evidence here that social capital has a direct influence on actual levels of per capita spending.

  8. 8.

    Given differing beliefs about suicide across religious denominations, the religious composition of a state may also impact its suicide rate. To test this possibility, we re-estimated the models in Table 1 using the same specification plus indictors for percent Catholic, percent Evangelical, and percent Mainline Christian in each state. None of the three religion variables was statistically different from zero in any of models. We also found that a state’s political culture (Sharkansky 1969) bears no relationship with state suicide rates.

  9. 9.

    The DF-beta is a measure of the potential influence on the parameter estimate that each observation has, so showing that results are unchanged when removing them increases our confidence in the findings. Specifically, we dropped cases with a DF-beta value larger than 2/(sqrtN).

  10. 10.

    We compute this figure using the parameter estimate for family assistance spending. Specifically, we take the estimate (which indicates that an increase of $1000 in per capita family assistance spending corresponds to a 22.4 point reduction in a state’s suicide rate) and divide to find the “cost” of reducing the suicide rate by a single point.

  11. 11.

    For both measures, more liberal policies/governing ideology are coded higher. See Table A.1 for further description of these measures.

  12. 12.

    We find that the same cannot be said of social capital, at least in this context. Contrary to expectations, public policies are more closely related to suicide rates than is social capital—indeed, higher levels of social capital appear to be associated with higher levels of suicide.


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Correspondence to Patrick Flavin.

Additional information

A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association.



Table A.1 Description and summary statistics of variables
Table A.2 Welfare spending and state suicide rates (bi-weight robust regression)
Table A.3 Welfare spending and state suicide rates (eliminating large DF betas)
Table A.4 Welfare spending and state suicide rates (eliminating largest residuals)
Table A.5 Welfare spending and state suicide rates (eliminating two highest and two lowest spending states)

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Flavin, P., Radcliff, B. Public Policies and Suicide Rates in the American States. Soc Indic Res 90, 195–209 (2009).

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  • Public policy
  • Social capital
  • Suicide
  • American state politics
  • Welfare spending