“The demonstration of a social gradient of health predicts that reducing inequality itself has health benefits for all, not simply for the impoverished or deprived minorities within populations.” (Devitt, Hall & Tsey 2001)
The above quote from Devitt, Hall and Tsey’s paper is a relatively well grounded and well researched statement which draws on contemporary theoretical sociological concepts to support the assertion that reducing inequality is the key to improving health for all. However the assertion that the demonstration of a social gradient of health predicts that a reduction in inequality will lead to health benefits for all is a rather broad statement and requires closer examination. The intention of this essay is to examine the social gradient of health, whose existence has been well established by the Whitehall Studies (Marmot 1991), and, by focusing on those groups at the lower end of the social gradient, determine whether initiatives to address inequalities between social classes will lead to health benefits for those classes at the lower end of the social scale. The effectiveness of past initiatives to address these social and health inequalities will be examined and recommendations made as to how these initiatives might be more effective.
The social gradient described by Marmot and others is interrelated with a variety of environmental, sociopolitical and socioeconomic factors which have been identified as key determinants of health. These determinants interact with each other at a very complex level to impact directly and indirectly on the health status of individuals and groups at all levels of society;
“Poor social and economic circumstances affect health throughout life. People further down the social ladder usually run at least twice the risk of serious illness and premature death of those near the top. Between the top and bottom health standards show a continual social gradient.” (Wilkinson & Marmot 1998)
In Australian society it is readily apparent that the lower social classes are at greater disadvantage than those in the upper echelons of society; this has been discussed at length in several separate papers on the social gradient of health and its effects on disadvantaged Australian groups (Devitt, Hall & Tsey 2001, Robinson 2002, Caldwell & Caldwell 1995).Within the context of the social gradient of health it can be inferred that Indigenous groups, for example, are particularly susceptible to ill health and poor health outcomes as they suffer inordinately from the negative effects of the key determinants of health. A simple example of this is the inequality in distribution of economic resources: “Average Indigenous household income is 38% less than that of non-Indigenous households.” (AHREOC 2004). The stress and anxiety caused by insufficient economic resources leads to increased risk of depression, hypertension and heart disease (Brunner 1997 cited in Henry 2001). Higher social status and greater access to economic resources is concomitant with a reduction in stress and anxiety levels, as individuals in these groups have more control over economic pressures which create this stress. This simple comparison proves that the social gradient of health accurately reflects how socioeconomic determinants affect the health of specific social classes at the physiological level.
An extension of the research into the social gradient and the determinants of health is the examination of the pathways through which specific social groups experience and respond to these determinants. These ‘psychosocial pathways’ incorporate psychological, behavioural and environmental constraints and are closely linked to the determinants of health; “Many of the socio-economic determinants of health have their effects through psychosocial pathways.” (Wilkinson 2001 cited in Robinson 2002). These pathways have been...