How Race and Socioeconomic Status Affect Health Outcomes in the United States

Updated on July 31, 2018
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Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

How are Socioeconomic Status, Race, and Health Outcomes Related?

Socioeconomic status, along with the racial or ethnic identity of an individual are strong predictors of future health outcomes. Studies have shown that the overall health of an individual is strongly correlated with their socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is also strongly related to race and ethnic background in the United States due to the long history of racial oppression in this country. Studies show how socioeconomic status influences health outcomes among different racial and ethnic groups.

Low Socioeconomic Status and Low Levels of Education Predict Lower Levels of Health

Most studies in the United States regarding health disparities have grouped their results by race or ethnic origin, but the difference between different socioeconomic groups haven’t been studied as extensively (Braveman et al, 2010). A study by Braveman et al (2010) aimed to learn more about the health disparities between different socioeconomic groups, as well as between people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. This study found that an individual's socioeconomic status has a great influence on overall health. According to this study, among most racial categories, those with the lowest incomes and lowest levels of education are consistently the least healthy overall. Further, people with intermediate income and educational levels are generally healthier than those at the lowest levels, but still suffer from poorer health that the wealthiest and most highly educated. In addition to socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity also play a role in overall health (Braveman et al, 2010).

In Braveman’s study, which compared several different indicators of health among adults and children of different socioeconomic statuses and racial categories, a gradient pattern was seen in health outcomes among African Americans and Caucasians showing that level of health was relatively consistent with income and educational level. The higher an individual’s income and educational level, the better their general health. This gradient pattern was less consistent among Hispanics, however. This study took into account childhood indicators such as infant mortality rate, health status, eating habits, and activity level, as well as adult health indicators such as life expectancy, health status, activity level, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity (Braveman et al, 2010).

How Socioeconomic Status Drives the Health Disparity Between Races

According to Williams et al (2010), “Racial categorization in the United States and elsewhere has historically reflected oppression, exploitation and social inequality.In health research, these categories were often viewed as meaningful indicators of genetic distinctiveness.” More recently, however, it has become more clear that socioeconomic status as a greater effect on health outcomes than does race alone. These apparent differences in health based on race have more to do with socially imposed oppression than with any genetic differences between races (Williams et al, 2010).

Socioeconomic status drives the health disparity between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. According to Williams et al. (2010), non-whites experience “earlier onset of illness, greater severity of disease and poorer survival” than do Caucasians. In certain instances, minorities may have a lower overall rate of a specific disease, but are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age and experience a worse prognosis. For example, whites are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer and depression, but African Americans are more likely to develop both of these diseases at an earlier age and have poorer outcomes than whites suffering from the same disease (Williams et al, 2010). This is likely greatly influenced by social and economic stresses experienced by minority groups.

What Can Be Done?

Braveman et al (2010) concluded from their study that there are “links between hierarchies of social advantage and health.” Braveman argues for policies and political support prioritizing these disadvantaged groups in an effort to improve their overall health. People living in poverty are unable to attain the best levels of health care, and “unhealthy individuals are less able to escape from poverty and social disadvantage (Braveman et al, 2010),” so the cycle of poverty and poor health continues. To close the health gap between different socioeconomic groups, public policy needs to shift to become more inclusive of diversity. These problems persist primarily because of unequal distribution of wealth in our country and ongoing oppression of minority groups and a system that favors certain groups, mainly educated white people, over racial and ethnic minorities.

Looking to the Future

Minority groups frequently lack the financial means to look after their own health and experience worse health outcomes due to institutionalized oppression and social stresses. With lower income and educational levels, racial and ethnic minorities tend to have poorer health. Public policy needs to change in order for disadvantaged groups to have better access to affordable health care in order to close the health gap between different social groups in the United States.

Sources

Braveman, P. A., Cubbin, C., Egerter, S., Williams, D. R., & Pamuk, E. (2010). Socioeconomic Disparities in Health in the United States: What the Patterns Tell Us. American Journal of Public Health, 100(Suppl 1), S186–S196. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.166082

Williams, D. R., Mohammed, S. A., Leavell, J. and Collins, C. (2010), Race, socioeconomic status, and health: Complexities, ongoing challenges, and research opportunities. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1186: 69–101. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05339.x

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    © 2018 Jennifer Wilber

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