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Wikipedia's biography of Don Young, the U.S. Representative for Alaska's at-large1 congressional district, says among other things that:

When asked about the fact that the state of Alaska has the highest suicide rate in America per capita, Young has stated that he believes the high suicide rates are at least partially the result of government handouts, and that "this suicide problem didn't exist until we got largesse from the government." He believes Alaska needs to cut public assistance programs.

To the extent that it is possible to investigate causality in social sciences, how factual is the idea that suicide rates in Alaska (or even elsewhere) are increased by "government handouts" such as public assistance programs?

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    The same biography link states there was also an increase in suicides among active-duty service members at Fort Wainwright, Alaska (not getting handouts). – Weather Vane Nov 18 at 9:26
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    Extract from the Politico article used as ref in the Wikipedia article used to justify the argument: "When people had to work and had to provide and had to keep warm by putting participation in cutting the wood and catching the fish and killing the animals, we didn’t have the suicide problem, [...] it comes from the largesse of saying you’re not worth anything but you’re going to get something for nothing." – Asmael Nov 18 at 11:27
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    You would probably want to show (a) that suicide rates jumped in Alaska around 1982 when the Alaska Permanent Fund started paying dividends, (b) that it did not jump at that time in other US States or Canada or for those in Alaska who did not receive the dividend and (c) nothing else special was changing in Alaska at that time. (c) may be difficult given the rapid population rise and increased oil production – Henry Nov 18 at 22:26
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    @pipe, you raise a good point about how such an effect might happen, but ordering is definitely important. Another plausible correlative scenario is that poverty contributes to suicide, and poverty requires government handouts. I.e., there's a third causative factor that "causes" both A and B, with B not causing A. – Ben Hocking Nov 21 at 9:55
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The claim is not supported by the data nor experts

The claim is that "government handouts" are the single largest driver of suicide rates in Alaska. It's unclear what Young is referring to.

One large "government handout" particular to Alaska is the Alaska Permanent Fund established in 1976 which started paying out in 1982. If Young's claims were true, we should see a strong correlation between payouts and suicide rates. And we should see a sharp spike in suicide rates after payouts began.

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Spreadsheet

"Crude Rate" is deaths per 100,000 people.

Note: The total annual suicide rates in Alaska are about 50-130. With such low absolute numbers, the data will be jittery. I've provided a 3 year moving average trendline to help.

"this suicide problem didn't exist until we got largesse from the government."

Unfortunately I do not have data prior to 1981, but if this statement were true 1981 should be significantly lower than following years and then it should climb once payouts begin. Instead the suicide rate remains flat from 1981 to the early 90s when it begins to climb well ahead of increases in payouts. As the payout rate fluctuates, the Alaska suicide rate trends upward at about the same rate as the rest of the US.

"When people had to work and had to provide and had to keep warm by putting participation in cutting the wood and catching the fish and killing the animals, we didn’t have the suicide problem, [...] it comes from the largesse of saying you’re not worth anything but you’re going to get something for nothing."

Clearly they did have a suicide problem prior to the payouts beginning in 1982.

The 2020 poverty line in Alaska for a single person is $15,950 per year. $1000 to $2000 a year is not enough money to stop working.


Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, responded to Young's claims.

“Alaska has one of the highest rates of suicide in the United States and it is disappointing that Representative Young would say such ill-informed remarks about something that is taking the lives of his constituents, young and old, across the Frontier State,”

Kate Burkhart, executive director of the Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, said...

“Alaskans attempt and die by suicide for a complex number of reasons. Many of those people have loving and supportive friends and family,”

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has this to say about the causes of suicide.

Risk Factors for Suicide:

  • Mental or emotional disorders, particularly depression and bipolar disorder
  • Previous suicide attempts or self-inflicted injury
  • History of trauma or loss
  • Serious illness, or physical or chronic pain or impairment.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Social isolation or a pattern/history of aggressive or antisocial behavior.
  • Discharge from inpatient psychiatric care
  • Access to lethal means coupled with suicidal thoughts

There is no typical suicide victim. Most individuals having these risk factors do not attempt suicide, and others without these conditions sometimes do.


Sources and Materials

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