U of Minnesota study finds gap in health rates between socioeconomic classes unchanged

December 05, 2007

Over the past century, the United States has witnessed historic advances in public health and medicine that have contributed to improved health and a significant increase in life expectancy for all socioeconomic groups. But despite 100 years of historic advances, University of Minnesota sociologists have found that the health gap between classes has not changed.

Associate professor of sociology John Robert Warren and graduate student Elaine Hernandez found that the relative advantage in child mortality rates and health associated with social and economic advantage was about the same at the end of the 20th century as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. People with more money, more education and higher status jobs experience consistently better health and lower child mortality rates.

Using data from a range of sources including the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey, the U.S. Census and the Current Population Survey, Warren and Hernandez analyzed socio-economic gradients-ratios or degree of differences between socio-economic classes in self-reported health and child mortality rates during the 20th century.

They measured social and economic advantage using three variables: Socioeconomic position with reference to educational achievement; self-reported relative socioeconomic standing both in adolescence and in adulthood; and head of household's occupation. Their health measures included child mortality rates and self-reports of overall health.

The researchers found that despite advances in nutrition, immunization and environmental factors, and even with a change in the types of diseases that have claimed lives over the past century, the relationship between socioeconomic position and health remained stable over the past century.

"Public health has improved dramatically in the United States since 1900 -- people from all socioeconomic groups are living longer and healthier," said Warren. "However, the relative advantage associated with wealth and education has persisted." Warren believes there's evidence to support the notion that reducing broader social, economic and political inequalities -- like reversing the historic trend toward greater income inequality in the United States -- might reduce disparities in health outcomes between social and economic groups.
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The study will be published in the December 2007 issue of the American Sociological Association's Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

University of Minnesota

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