A new sociology study suggests that the health effects of inequality in the United States aren’t felt immediately but rather take several years to develop:
Higher levels of U.S. income inequality lead to more deaths in the country long-term, an Ohio State University sociologist suggests.
Study author Hui Zheng said the findings suggested income inequality at any one point doesn’t work instantaneously — it begins to increase mortality rates five years later, and its influence peaks after seven years, before fading after 12 years.
Zheng used data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 1986 to 2004 with mortality follow-up data from 1986 to 2006. His final sample involved more than 700,000 people age 30 and older…
The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, found a 0.01 unit rise in the Gini coefficient increased the cumulative odds of death by 122 percent in the following 12 years.
“This finding is striking and it supports the argument that income inequality is a public health concern,” Zheng said in a statement. “For the first time, we can clearly capture the long-term effect of income inequality on health.”
While I don’t study health outcomes, I like a conceptual path a study like this offers: we need to think about and discuss the longer-term effects of inequality. In other words, decisions made now for better or worse will have extended effects down the road. In terms of all public policy, we don’t want to be at a place where one or several decades have passed and we haven’t thought through where public policies have led us.
On the flip side, it is common for critics of sociology to argue that certain changes can be made in public policy and magically two groups will be on equal footing. For example, housing discrimination was made illegal in the 1960s – doesn’t this mean that everyone is now on equal in the marketplace? Here is how I describe this in class: you have a graph with two upward curves, one with a steeper rise representing a more privileged (income, education, etc.) and one with a slower rise. If after fifty years there is a wide gap between the two groups but a policy is changed to help level the playing field, this does not mean that automatically that gap disappears. In terms of the housing example, there are still plenty of examples of disparities and discrimination even though certain actions are clearly illegal. It takes time to reverse social inequality and the social world is not easy to change. Thus, if inequality today leads to health disparities down the road, it will take more time to reverse that trend and get us back to the same starting point, let alone make things more equal in the long run.