Wealthier people are healthier and live longer. Why? One popular explanation is summarized in the documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick?
The lives of a CEO, a lab supervisor, a janitor, and an unemployed mother illustrate how class shapes opportunities for good health. Those on the top have the most access to power, resources and opportunity – and thus the best health. Those on the bottom are faced with more stressors – unpaid bills, jobs that don’t pay enough, unsafe living conditions, exposure to environmental hazards, lack of control over work and schedule, worries over children – and the fewest resources available to help them cope.
(My emphasis above)The net effect is a health-wealth gradient, in which every descending rung of the socioeconomic ladder corresponds to worse health.If this were true, then increasing the wealth of a poor person would increase their health. That does not appear to be the case. In important new research David Cesarini, Erik Lindqvist, Robert Ostling and Bjorn Wallace look at the health of lottery winners in Sweden (75% of winnings within the range of approximately $20,000 to $800,000) and, importantly, on their children. Most effects on adults are reliably close to zero and in no case can wealth explain a large share of the wealth-health gradient:
In adults, we find no evidence that wealth impacts mortality or health care utilization.... Our estimates allow us to rule out effects on 10-year mortality one sixth as large as the crosssectional wealth-mortality gradient.The authors also look at the health effects on the children of lottery winners. There is more uncertainty in the health estimates on children but most estimates cluster around zero and developmental effects on things like IQ can be rejected (“In all eight subsamples, we can rule out wealth effects on GPA smaller than 0.01 standard deviations”).
Alex does not emphasize the most important point, I think, of this study. The natural inference is, The same things that make you wealthy make you healthy. The correlation between health and wealth across the population reflect two outcomes of the same underlying causes.
We can speculate what those causes are. (I haven't read the paper, maybe the authors do.) A natural hypothesis is a whole set of circumstances and lifestyle choices have both health and wealth effects. These causes can be either "right" or "left" as far as the evidence before us: "Right:" Thrift, hard work, self discipline and clean living lead to health and wealth. "Left:" good parents, good neighborhood, the right social connections lead to health and wealth.
Either way, simply transferring money will not transfer the things that produce money, and produce health.
Perhaps the documentary was right after all: "class shapes opportunities for good health." But "class" is about more than a bank account.
Also, Alex can be misread as a bit too critical: "If this were true." It is true that health and wealth are correlated. It is not true that more wealth causes better health. The problem is not just "resources available to help them cope."
Why a blog post? This story is a gorgeous example of the one central thing you learn when doing empirical economics: Correlation is not causation. Always look for the reverse possibility, or that the two things correlated are both outcomes of something else, and changing A will not affect B. We seldom get an example that is so beautifully clear.
Update: Melissa Kearney writes,
"Bill Evans and Craig Garthwaite have an important study [AER] showing that expansions of EITC benefits led to improvements in self-reported health status among affected mothers.
Their paper provides a nice counterpoint to the Swedish lottery study, one that is arguably more relevant to the policy question of whether more income would causally improve the health of low-income individuals in the U.S.
Thanks Melissa for pointing it out. This is interesting, but I'd rather not get in to a dissection of studies here -- just who takes advantage of EITC benefits, how instruments and differences do and don't answer these problems. The main point of my post is not to answer once and for all the question -- how much does showers of money improve people's heath -- but to point out with this forceful example for non-economists the possibility that widely reported correlations - rich people are healthier -- don't automatically mean that money showers raise health.