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The relationships between income inequality, welfare regimes and aggregate health: a systematic review

23 May 2017

AbstractBackground: When analysing the relationships between income inequality, welfare regimes and aggregate health at the cross-national level, previous primary articles and systematic reviews reach inconsistent conclusions. Contrary to theoretical expectations, equal societies or the Social Democratic welfare regime do not always have the best aggregate health when compared with those of other relatively unequal societies or other welfare regimes. This article will shed light on the controversial subjects with a new decomposition systematic review method. Methods: The decomposition systematic review method breaks down an individual empirical article, if necessary, into multiple findings based on an article’s use of the following four components: independent variable, dependent variable, method and dataset. This decomposition method extracts 107 findings from the selected 48 articles, demonstrating the dynamics between the four components. Results: ‘The age threshold effect’ is recognized over which the hypothesized relations between income inequality, welfare regimes and aggregate health reverse. The hypothesis is supported mainly for younger infant and child health indicators, but not for adult health or general health indicators such as life expectancy. Further three threshold effects (income, gender and period) have also been put forward. Conclusions: The negative relationship between income inequality and aggregate health, often termed as the Wilkinson Hypothesis, was not generally observed in all health indicators except for infant and child mortality. The Scandinavian welfare regime reveals worse-than-expected outcomes in all health indicators except infant and child mortality.

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