For whom is income inequality most harmful? A multi-level analysis of income inequality and mortality in Norway

Espen Dahl, Jon Ivar Elstad, Dag Hofoss, Melissa Martin-Mollard
Social Science & Medicine 2006, 63 (10): 2562-74
This study investigates the degree to which contextual income inequality in economic regions in Norway affected mortality during the 1990s, above the effects of mean regional income and individual-level confounders. A further objective is to explore whether income inequality effects on mortality differed between socioeconomic groups. Data were constructed by linkages of administrative registers encompassing all Norwegian inhabitants. The outcome variable was all-cause mortality during 6 years (i.e., died 1994-1999 or alive end of 1999). Men and women aged 25-66 in 1993 were analysed. Regions' mean income and income inequality (in terms of gini coefficients) were calculated from consumption-units-adjusted family disposable income. Individual-level variables included sex, age, marital status, individual income, education, and being a recipient of health-related welfare benefits. Multilevel logistic regression models were fitted for 2,197,231 individuals nested within 88 regions. After adjusting for regional mean income and individual-level variables, the odds ratio (OR) for mortality 1994-1999 was 1.028 (95% CI 1.023-1.033) on the gini variable multiplied by 100. Analyses of cross-level interactions indicated some, albeit modest, income inequality effects on mortality in the upper income and educational categories. Among those with low individual income, low education, and among recipients of health-related welfare benefits, mortality effects of higher regional income inequality were significantly stronger than among those more advantageously placed in the social structure. The results of this study differ from previous studies which have suggested that contextual income inequality has a minor impact on population health in egalitarian countries. The results indicate that in Norway, neither a comparatively egalitarian income distribution nor generous and comprehensive welfare institutions hindered the emergence of regional-level income inequality effects on mortality, and these effects were particularly marked among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Explanations for the results are discussed.

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