Rising income inequality linked to Americans’ declining health: Disparities experienced by children affect adult well-being

Rising levels of income inequality in the United States may be one reason why Americans’ health has declined in recent decades, new research suggests.

The study found that the level of income inequality Americans experienced as children was associated with increased risk of developing adult markers of health, such as chronic inflammation and lung function, as well as diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

And with increasing levels of income inequality since the 1940s, Americans’ overall health has begun to decline, said Hui Zheng, lead author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

“Children growing up in a period of rising income inequality are particularly affected by its negative effects,” Zheng said.

“It has long-term effects on their health as adults.”

The study was recently published online in the journal social science and medicine,

Researchers analyzed data on Americans born between 1925 and 1999. They used two nationally representative datasets to examine health trends over time.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1988-2018 (NHANES) included 35,509 people and measured nine markers of health, including inflammation, lung function and kidney function.

In addition, they used the Income Dynamics 1968-2013 (PSID) panel study, which included 12,924 adults, and measured 10 health problems, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease.

The researchers created a measure of childhood disparity for all individuals in the study. It’s based on what’s called the Gini Index, which in this case used Internal Revenue Service data to summarize each year how income was spread among all Americans.

For each person, the disparity measure was based on averaging the National Gini Index scores between their birth and when they turned 18.

Overall, income inequality has been increasing dramatically since the mid-1940s when baby boomers were first born, the findings showed.

And the results showed that this increase in inequality very closely reflects the adult decline in health in both datasets used, Zheng said.

For example, every 0.01 unit increase in childhood was associated with a 3% increase in the Gini index (indicating greater inequality) in the NHANES dataset, which is called physical deformity—basically, health biomarkers moving in unhealthy directions. .

A similar link was found between childhood disparity and poor adult health in the PSID dataset looking at chronic disease.

This finding persisted even after taking into account a variety of factors that may be related to the declining health of Americans, such as early life disease and contemporary socioeconomic factors.

An argument can be made that rising income inequality as well as other negative long-term trends are behind the declining health of Americans. But the researchers analyzed three other trends during people’s childhood – union membership, GDP growth rate and unemployment rate – and found none had as strong a relationship with health as income inequality.

Zheng said the income inequality Americans faced as adults had less impact on their health than the income inequality they experienced as children. This is in line with the theory “the developmental origin of health and disease”.

“This theory says that our health as adults is strongly influenced by what we experience in childhood,” he said.

Other research suggests several reasons why childhood experiences of inequality may affect later health. For one, countries with greater income inequality devote less resources to public spending policies, which could mean that many children have reduced opportunities and worsening living conditions through their adulthood. .

Zheng said the data from this study did not allow researchers to compare those who were relatively well off financially as children to those who were more disadvantaged.

But other research by Zheng and a colleague suggests that income inequality can harm the health of people across all socioeconomic groups, even if the disadvantaged suffer the most, he said.

Zheng said the study sheds new light on the declining health and rising mortality rates that were first observed in middle-aged Americans at the turn of the 21st century.

It may seem like things started going wrong in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he said. But this study shows that the seeds of that decline were sown long ago, when income inequality began to rise in the 1940s.

This shows that our society needs to act now to improve health outcomes for young people and for generations to come.

“The health effects of income inequality on children today will not become apparent until later in their lives,” Zheng said.

“Without policy interventions to address high levels of inequality, youth today will continue to face the same health problems that we found in this study,” he said.

The study was supported by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Aging and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other co-authors were Eunyoung Choi, a graduate student in sociology at Ohio State; Jonathan Durlam, a PhD graduate from Ohio State who is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany; and Linda George, professor emerita of sociology at Duke University.

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