Respect Equality

Rise in income inequality linked to poor health outcomes, study finds

“Without policy interventions to address high levels of inequality, young people today will continue to face the same health issues we found in this study,” the study’s lead author said.

Story at a glance

  • Researchers used two nationally representative datasets to examine various health trends over time. 

  • Then researchers created a childhood inequality measure based on what is called the Gini Index, which used Internal Revenue Service data, to show how income was dispersed among Americans each year. 

  • They found that income inequality has increased significantly since the 1940’s. 

Income inequality Americans experienced as children has been linked to their health outcomes as adults, according to a new study.  

“Children growing up in a period of rising income inequality seem to be particularly influenced by its negative effects,” lead author Hui Zheng said in a news release. “It has a long-term impact on their health as adults.” 

Researchers used two nationally representative datasets — the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 1988-2018 (NHANES) and the Panel Studies of Income Dynamics 1968-2013 (PSID) — to examine various health trends over time. NHANES included more than 35,500 people and measured nine health markers, while PSID included 12,924 adults, and measured 10 health problems.  

Then researchers created a childhood inequality measure based on what is called the Gini Index, which used Internal Revenue Service data to show how income was dispersed among Americans each year. They found that income inequality has increased significantly since the 1940’s.  

Zheng said that each dataset showed a link between income inequality in childhood to declining health in adulthood.  

A link between chronic illness, like heart disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease, and income inequality, found in the PSID dataset, remained even after accounting for early life disease and socioeconomic factors.  


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Researchers also analyzed three other trends during people’s childhoods – union membership, GDP growth rate and unemployment rate – and found the greatest factor in one’s health was income inequality. Meanwhile, income inequality experienced as adults had less of a negative health effect.  

The study, however, did not compare the health outcomes between people who experienced financial stability during childhood and those enduring economic hardships.  

Zheng said the study shows the need for early interventions to improve the health outcomes for children later in life.  

“The health effects of income inequality on children today won’t be apparent until later in their lives,” Zheng said. 

 “Without policy interventions to address high levels of inequality, young people today will continue to face the same health issues we found in this study,” he concluded. 

The study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. 


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