Invisible Does Not Mean Intangible: Socioeconomic Inequality Has Biological Consequences



Isn’t it kind of funny how you always manage to get sick just around finals week? This is when you need to be working the hardest, and yet, your body seems to give out on you. This anecdotal evidence is a reminder of how mental stress can influence physical health. When the source of stress is society itself, however, its effects become almost inescapable. Socioeconomic inequality in the United States is not a new topic, as it has been belabored by sociologists, economists, historians, and more for decades. Debates spiral around whether it is important, whether it can be overcome, its effects on future generations’ socioeconomic status, and so on. But more recently, scientists and healthcare workers have become part of the conversation on inequality. Multiple studies have shown that social and economic inequality have detrimental biological effects on the physical and mental health of those left behind by the system.

Inequality is a persistent aspect of a capitalist economy. Simply put, wealth produces more wealth, and those with capital reinvest their profits into the market to generate even larger profits, pulling money up the economic class ladder so that it accumulates at the top. This gap has been present since the Industrial Revolution, inspiring the works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and many other classical sociologists as they tried to understand the effects of this economic system on society. Today, the gap has widened into a chasm. In 2016, the top one percent of the American population owned 39.6% of all wealth in our country. The top 20%? 89.9% of national wealth. This inequality is maintained and enlarged by those in power, both intentionally and unintentionally. Sustaining this difference involves the ideologies of “individualism” and “meritocracy.” Our society believes that one’s lower financial position is solely a result of inadequacy and lack of effort, dismissing the effects of the larger social forces at work. This puts a lot of stress and blame on the individual for not “succeeding” in a capitalist society. This, as we will see, has a mental and physical impact on those who are not only ruined by this inequality, but are also unable to overcome it. On the other hand, many also claim that people higher up in the corporate chain experience more stress–the myth of “executive stress.” It partially stems from poorly-designed mid-20th century studies on rhesus monkeys that, supposedly, when given the “executive” power to prevent receiving electric shocks, were dying from stress-induced stomach ulcers. But the hundreds of studies that have followed, in monkeys and in humans, show the opposite, where those who are lower in the “pecking order” are the ones with consistently higher stress hormone levels.

But what about having a lower socioeconomic status causes all of this anxiety and mental pressure? Control. The inability to have control over your own life is the root cause of this perceived, permanent stress. The American Psychological Association addresses the multiple ways in which a lower socioeconomic status is tied to a lack of control, including, but not limited to: job insecurity and the threat of unemployment, the fear of under-performing at work, the inability to take time off from work for vacation or sick leave, and the frustration from being unable to spend sufficient time with family and friends. Even the rhesus monkeys from before showed the same trend. Monkeys that had most quickly learned to use levers to prevent shocks were the ones placed in the “executive” group, but they may have also been the fastest to learn because they were most upset by the shocks. This means their increased stress load may have had less to do with making “important decisions,” and more with desperately trying to protect themselves from their environment. As Keith Payne from Scientific American puts it, “If you are trying furiously to control a situation because you are terrified of what would happen if you don’t, you are not really in control at all.”

The stress caused by lacking control, beyond being a mental state, also has biological effects–namely, elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, along with adrenaline, is released as a response to a stressful event, triggering a “fight or flight” response in our bodies by increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, widening airways, pausing digestion, and more. Only well after the perceived threat has passed do our cortisol levels fall back to a normal level, allowing the body to relax. Usually, this response is to immediate danger, like a car almost running into you. But when long-term stressors, like social and economic inequality and financial insecurity, trigger the same full-body response, the extended period of cortisol elevation can be very harmful. Elevated blood rates can damage the cardiovascular system by putting too much pressure on it. Appetite will increase as the body searches for more energy, but unused energy will be more quickly converted to fat. The morphology of various brain regions can be affected, and in some cases result in atrophy, or “wasting away.” Research from recent years shows an inverse relationship between stress levels and memory strength, and chronic psychological stress has been associated with the body losing its ability to effectively regulate inflammatory responses, resulting in an overactive immune system. Even at a molecular level, we see changes. Telomeres, the “extra” DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protects them from nuclease damage and replication problems as a cell ages throughout a person’s life, have also shown to be relatively shorter in more stressed people, suggesting that chronic stress could lead to premature aging. As financial insecurity and social inequality continue to loom in our society, the “shrinking middle class” and poor will continue to fall victim to these types of health problems.

But health problems associated with socioeconomic status can be caused by our external environment too, including pollution, wastes, and harmful work conditions that may come with capitalist production methods. Unsurprisingly, poorer communities are disproportionately more exposed to these environmental stressors, and their health suffers for it. A recent Environmental Protection Agency study from February 2018 found that air pollution levels are higher in impoverished communities than in overall communities, and highest in African-American ones. Given how closely race and class are tied in our society, we can understand how privilege can compound to benefit one sector of people at, quite literally, the cost of the lives of people in another sector.

Another infamous–and still unresolved–example of this is the water crisis of Flint, Michigan. In 2014, the state of Michigan shifted the city’s water supply from the clean and safe water of Detroit’s system to improperly treated water from the Flint River as a money-saving venture. Now, four years later, the community is still reeling from the toxic effects of their mistreated, cloudy, lead-filled water, as their pipes are still being replaced. Some government officials have been charged with criminal negligence, but it may be too little, too late, as lead is incredibly dangerous to humans. Children are particularly susceptible to adverse health effects from lead as they absorb it more easily; this can then impair physical and psychological development. The absurdity is clear–children are being subjected to physically debilitating circumstances for no reason.

Though social structures may seem like superficial creations, the way we organize ourselves by social and economic status provides context to our lives. Inequality is persistent in many of our hierarchical systems, and its effects include tangible, physiological responses in those most affected by the disparity. Internal and external environments change with class, race, and gender. Being conscious of those differences and working to minimize them, or at least finding avenues to enable people to obtain the security and agency they deserve, may lead to a holistically happier, healthier, and more productive society.