Socioeconomic gradients in health in international and historical context


Address for correspondence: William H. Dow, Division of Health Policy & Management, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, 239 University Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360.


This article places socioeconomic gradients in health into a broader international and historical context. The data we present supports the conclusion that current socioeconomic gradients in health within the United States are neither inevitable nor immutable. This literature reveals periods in the United States with substantially smaller gradients, and identifies many examples of other countries whose different social policy choices appear to have led to superior health levels and equity even with fewer aggregate resources. The article also sheds light on the potential importance of various hypothesized mechanisms in driving major shifts in U.S. population health patterns. While it is essential to carefully examine individual mechanisms contributing to health patterns, it is also illuminating to take a more holistic view of the set of factors changing in conjunction with major shifts in population health. In this article, we do so by focusing on the period of the 1980s, during which U.S. life expectancy gains slowed markedly relative to other developed countries, and U.S. health disparities substantially increased. A comparison with Canada suggests that exploring broad social policy differences, such as the weaker social safety net in the United States, may be a promising area for future investigation.