A University of Wisconsin study shows a link between income inequality and health. In California, people in high-income counties tend to be healthier.
The link between health and wealth has been clear for a long time. People who live in low-income communities are likely to be sicker, and die sooner, than people in wealthier neighborhoods.
A recently released study has taken that idea a step further. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have found that income equality seems connected to health. In general, the more unequal the income distribution is in a given county, the less healthy the population will be.
The findings were published as part of the university’s County Health Rankings, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The annual rankings compare nearly every county in America based on health status and longevity, then rate them on demographic, social and behavioral factors that are thought to contribute to good or ill health.
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It’s not surprising that in California, the places that annually take the top spots in health are the ones with the highest family incomes: Marin, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Orange, to name a few.
The counties with the worst health, meanwhile, such as Lake, Trinity, Modoc and Del Norte, are among the poorest. If you live in Marin, chances are you will live many years longer than if you live in Lake County.
The new findings, though, say that if you take two counties with the same average income and racial composition, people will die younger in the county with more inequality. The effect is similar to small changes in obesity or smoking rates.
The reasons for the correlation between equality and health are murky. One might be that public health and social services are worse in counties with unequal incomes because wealthier people tend to use private services and are not as supportive of the safety net.
Another might be that stark differences in income add to stress among low-income people, and stress leads to health problems.
There are so many factors affecting health that income inequality alone does not move the needle much. But it might be at play in some California counties that don’t quite follow the typical pattern connecting wealth and health.
San Francisco, for example, has the fifth-highest family income among 57 California counties (sparsely populated Alpine County wasn’t included), but it ranks 16th in longevity. One reason might be that the county has the most inequality of any place in California.
A similar dynamic may be at play in Fresno. That county ranks 17th in family income but 35th in longevity. Fresno residents, on average, die way before their time. Part of the answer might be in those income equality numbers: Fresno ranks 47th among the counties on that measure.
Inequality is not going away any time soon, and trying to reduce it can have other, unintended consequences. Policymakers at least should be aware of the possible connection and be open to ideas that would boost the health not just of the poorest Californians but people who live in places with the sharpest divisions in income.
Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report.
BY THE NUMBERS
A University of Wisconsin study ranks counties by income inequality and health. Here are where some Central Valley counties rank in California for overall health:
▪ 29. Sacramento
▪ 38. Stanislaus
▪ 44. San Joaquin
▪ 45. Tulare
▪ 46. Madera
▪ 49. Fresno