Health and the Income Inequality Hypothesis
A Doctrine in Search of Data

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    Health and the Income Inequality Hypothesis
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Few would take exception to the proposition that an improvement in the material well-being of the poor would enhance not only their living standards but their health as well. A number of influential recent studies, however, purport to show that inequality in income--not poverty per se--is bad for people's health. This "inequality hypothesis" is meant to apply to everyone, regardless of wealth or social standing, and predicts that the risk of illness depends upon whether one lives in a society that is stratified or egalitarian. Thus, according to this hypothesis, while the poor may suffer the most from inequality, the better off and even the rich suffer as well.

The enthusiasm many researchers and observers feel for this theory goes well beyond what might be justified by the evidence. The inequality hypothesis too often relies upon limited or unrepresentative data, hazily expounded causality, elementary econometric fallacies, and results that cannot be replicated.

A very persuasive (although less publicly heralded) body of scholarship that challenges the inequality hypothesis is currently emerging. For example, by controlling for relevant variables--such as household income, maternal characteristics, education, and race--the relationship between income inequality and the health of infants and adults diminishes or disappears completely. This strongly suggests that income distribution is far less powerful a determinant of population health than the inequality hypothesis holds.

Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

Sally Satel, MD is a resident scholar at AEI in the W.H. Brady Culture and Freedom Program. She is staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Clinic in Washington, D.C. and author of PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine (Basic Books, 2001).

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About the Author

 

Nicholas
Eberstadt
  • Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and a demographer by training, is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on economic development, foreign aid, global health, demographics, and poverty. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles on North and South Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. His books range from The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999) to The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008).

     

  • Phone: 202.862.5825
    Email: eberstadt@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Alex Coblin
    Phone: 202.419.5215
    Email: alex.coblin@aei.org

 

Sally
Satel

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