Whose health is affected by income inequality? A multilevel interaction analysis of contemporaneous and lagged effects of state income inequality on individual self-rated health in the United States

S V Subramanian, Ichiro Kawachi
Health & Place 2006, 12 (2): 141-56
The empirical relationship between income inequality and health has been much debated and discussed. Recent reviews suggest that the current evidence is mixed, with the relationship between state income inequality and health in the United States (US) being perhaps the most robust. In this paper, we examine the multilevel interactions between state income inequality, individual poor self-rated health, and a range of individual demographic and socioeconomic markers in the US. We use the pooled data from the 1995 and 1997 Current Population Surveys, and the data on state income inequality (represented using Gini coefficient) from the 1990, 1980, and 1970 US Censuses. Utilizing a cross-sectional multilevel design of 201,221 adults nested within 50 US states we calibrated two-level binomial hierarchical mixed models (with states specified as a random effect). Our analyses suggest that for a 0.05 change in the state income inequality, the odds ratio (OR) of reporting poor health was 1.30 (95% CI: 1.17-1.45) in a conditional model that included individual age, sex, race, marital status, education, income, and health insurance coverage as well as state median income. With few exceptions, we did not find strong statistical support for differential effects of state income inequality across different population groups. For instance, the relationship between state income inequality and poor health was steeper for whites compared to blacks (OR=1.34; 95% CI: 1.20-1.48) and for individuals with incomes greater than $75,000 compared to less affluent individuals (OR=1.65; 95% CI: 1.26-2.15). Our findings, however, primarily suggests an overall (as opposed to differential) contextual effect of state income inequality on individual self-rated poor health. To the extent that contemporaneous state income inequality differentially affects population sub-groups, our analyses suggest that the adverse impact of inequality is somewhat stronger for the relatively advantaged socioeconomic groups. This pattern was found to be consistent regardless of whether we consider contemporaneous or lagged effects of state income inequality on health. At the same time, the contemporaneous main effect of state income inequality remained statistically significant even when conditioned for past levels of income inequality and median income of states.

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