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Relative status and well-being: evidence from U.S. suicide deaths

  • Mary C. Daly
  • Daniel J. Wilson
  • Norman J. Johnson

This paper empirically assesses the theory of interpersonal income comparison using individual level data on suicide deaths in the United States. We model suicide as a choice variable, conditional on exogenous risk factors, reflecting an individual's assessment of current and expected future utility. Our empirical analysis considers whether suicide risk is systematically related to the income of others, holding own income and other individual factors fixed. We estimate proportional hazards and probit models of the suicide hazard using two separate and independent data sets: (1) the National Longitudinal Mortality Study and (2) the Detailed Mortality Files combined with the 5 percent Public Use Micro Sample of the 1990 decennial census. Results from both data sources show that, controlling for own income and individual characteristics, individual suicide risk rises with reference group income. This result holds for reference groups defined broadly, such as by county, and more narrowly by county and one demographic marker (e.g., age, sex, race). These findings are robust to alternative specifications and cannot be explained by geographic variation in cost of living, access to emergency medical care, mismeasurement of deaths by suicide, or by bias due to endogeneity of own income. Our results confirm findings using self-reported happiness data and are consistent with models of utility featuring "external habit" or "Keeping Up with the Joneses" preferences.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in its series Working Paper Series with number 2007-12.

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Date of creation: 2007
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedfwp:2007-12
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  18. Mary C. Daly & Daniel J. Wilson, 2006. "Keeping up with the Joneses and staying ahead of the Smiths: evidence from suicide data," Working Paper Series 2006-12, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
  19. Ulf-G. Gerdtham & Magnus Johannesson, 2004. "Absolute Income, Relative Income, Income Inequality, and Mortality," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 39(1).
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