Income inequality impacts children's health more than adults': study

Income inequality in childhood was linked to chronic illnesses like inflammation, deterioration of lung function, diabetes and cancer.

Chris Arnold 4 minute read May 13, 2022
salary comparison, inequality concept

There is a difference in the impact income inequality has on a person depending on age. GETTY

Income inequality in the United States could be playing a part in the declining health of American people.

According to researchers at Ohio State University, the level of income inequality people experience as children is linked to chronic illnesses like inflammation, deterioration of lung function, diabetes and cancer.

The research was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

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

Researchers looked at data from nearly 50,000 Americans born between 1925 and 1999, specifically focusing on biomarkers of physiological dysregulation (i.e. inflammation and deterioration of lung and renal function) and chronic disease index. The information came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Panel Studies of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan, which focused on stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.

The scientists needed to develop a method to measure income inequality as children, so they used the Gini Index, a measurement of income distribution across a population, and IRS data to summarize each year of the subjects’ lives between the time they were born and the year they turned 18.

Wealth gap in Canada took off in early 90’s

Researchers found that the levels of income inequality in the United States started to take off in the 1940s, when the first baby boomers were born, despite people thinking that income inequality was a primarily ‘90s and 2000s issue, Zheng said. 

That is actually seen in Canada, where between 1993 and 2008 the richest group of Canadians increased their share of wealth, while middle and lower class Canadians lost money, according to The Conference Board of Canada. 

The board also used the Gini Index for its research, suggesting that inequality was relatively low in the 1980s but has remained almost the same since the 2000s. The board also says that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the richest one per cent of Canadians owned only about eight per cent of all income growth. 

Income inequality may impact everyones health

In the American trends, Zheng says that the rise in inequality is mirroring adult health issues in both sets of data used for the study. The researchers also found that for every 0.01 Gini unit increase, there was a three per cent increase in physiological dysregulation when looking at the CDC’s data. 

This essentially means that as the Gini increased, people’s overall health decreased. 

However, there is a difference in the impact income inequality has on a person depending on age. The researchers noted that inequality experienced as children had more of an impact than inequality experienced as adults. The findings are consistent with the developmental origins of health and disease theory, which states the role of parental and perinatal exposure to environmental factors can determine the development of diseases in adulthood. 

This is not the first time Zheng has looked into the impact money has on health. In 2012, he published a study suggesting that income inequality has a negative impact on all people’s health, but hurts the lower class the most. 

“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.”

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based writer.
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