Observations on life

The Link Between Income Inequality and Physical Pain

The title of this post is the title of a research paper in the Harvard Business Review. Pretty scary stuff isn’t it?

20140205-063200.jpgThe problem is that the research and the article are not about income inequality. The point is that fiscal insecurity creates physical pain which in turn leads to increased use of pain killers. In other words,  if you are worried about your next meal, paying the bills, losing your home or job, you are more likely to be physically ill; in pain.

The answer is creating more economic security, more and better jobs, more productive lifestyles. But what does all that have to do with the millionaire whose stock investments grow by 50% and make her more wealthy? So why the title they chose? Would “Lower income leads to more pain pills” grab your attention, especially in this political environment?

img_0100-2An economy that does not support an improving lifestyle for the middle-class is the problem, a complicated problem that has been simplified into one word that misses the point; inequality. We should be focused on closing any income gap by raising the status of the middle-class and below which does not mean tearing down others. Unfortunately, that requires hard work and hard choices. It’s not simplistic enough to fit into populist rhetoric.

A growing body of evidence suggests that this fiscal pain and physical pain are linked and reinforce each other. Over numerous studies, both in the lab and in the field, we have found that the experience of economic insecurity leads people to experience physical pain. Analyses of household consumption data, surveys, and controlled experiments demonstrate a causal link between economic insecurity and pain.

In one study, we analyzed the 2008 consumption patterns of 33,720 households across the U.S. and documented the employment status of heads of households. We then focused on the cumulative dollar amount each household spent on over-the-counter painkillers, while controlling for factors that might affect their consumption, such as household size, age, and use of cold and flu medicines. Compared to households in which at least one head of the household was employed, those in which both were unemployed spent 20% more on over-the-counter painkillers.

In a similar study, we informed people of their state’s unemployment rate, asked them their employment status, and then asked them how much physical pain they were currently experiencing. Again, the person’s employment status predicted the level of physical pain he or she was experiencing. In addition, simply living in a state with a high unemployment level was sufficient to induce physical pain.

These two studies confirmed the positive relationship between economic insecurity and physical pain. We then turned to the laboratory to establish the causal direction.

First, we must acknowledge that two major social issues — economic insecurity and the rise in painkiller consumption — are connected.


2 replies »

  1. Very interesting post. I work with a couple of hundred people a month, most of whom have very limited income and many of whom have chronic pain as one of their medical conditions. I agree with ‘We should be focused on closing any income gap by raising the status of the middle-class and below which does not mean tearing down others.” Any ideas on how to do this?


    • Create a better government policy to stimulate growth and investment. Review regulations and corporate tax code as part of this. Increase interest rates. Focus on a better education before college, especially in the STEM areas. Add courses related to personal financial management and lifestyle choices. Create environment for American business to be more competitive globally.

      Liked by 1 person

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