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Childhood Income Inequality Tied to Health Issues in Adulthood

— May 25, 2022

Income levels in childhood affect health and well-being in adulthood, according to a new study.

Income inequality experienced by U.S. citizens in childhood (particularly growing up before the 1950s) has been linked to poor health outcomes in adulthood, according to a recent study based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 1988-2018 (NHANES) and the Panel Studies of Income Dynamics 1968-2013 (PSID).  NHANES included more than 35,500 people and measured nine markers.  PSID included 12,924 adults and measured ten health problems.  The study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

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

After analyzing the NHANES and PSID data, the research team generated a childhood inequality measure using the Gini Index, an indexed utilized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data to show income.  Zheng said that each dataset “showed a link between income inequality in childhood to declining health in adulthood.”  More specifically, 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,” the team wrote.

Childhood Income Inequality Tied to Health Issues in Adulthood
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Researchers also accounted for other employment/income factors that may impact health, including union membership, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate and the unemployment rate.  They found income inequality in childhood was the biggest factor in influencing one’s well-being.  At the same time, adulthood inequality had a less negative impact.

They concluded, “Morbidity and mortality are on the rise among Baby Boomers and younger cohorts…By merging childhood income inequality to individual level data from NHANES or PSID based on birth cohort, we found childhood income inequality is positively associated with the risk of physiological dysregulation in adulthood for all gender and racial groups in the NHANES data.  It is also significantly related to the risk of chronic disease in the PSID data.  This association is robust to controls for individual level childhood health and family background, adulthood socioeconomic and marital status, and contemporary macro socioeconomic factors.  More importantly, childhood income inequality exposure explains a substantial amount of variation in these two health outcomes across cohorts, a pattern not observed for other early life exposures that display negative temporal trends similar to those for childhood income inequality.  This study provides important evidence that income inequality experienced during childhood may have a long-lasting negative consequence for adult health, which partially explains the adverse health trends experienced by Baby Boomers and younger cohorts in the United States.”

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.  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.”


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

Rising childhood income inequality and declining Americans’ health

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