Dissertation Abstracts

The income inequality thesis revisited. Studies on the relationship between income inequality and well-being

Author: Deurzen, Ioana van, ioana@van-deurzen.com
Department: Sociology
University: Tilburg University, Netherlands
Supervisor: Prof.dr.ing. W.J.H. Van Oorschot
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: income inequality , health , well-being , corruption
Areas of Research: Health , Comparative Sociology , Mental Health and Illness


The topic of the present dissertation is the relationship between income inequality and well-being and has as starting point the so called “income inequality thesis”. The general research questions that are at the basis of the dissertation are the following:
(1) what is the empirical relationship between inequality and different dimensions of well-being?
(2) what is the empirical relationship between inequality and well-being across countries with various levels of economic development?
(3) how can the relationship between inequality and well-being be explained?
(4) is the relationship between inequality and well-being the same for individuals with different characteristics, e.g., different income or coping resources?

The contribution of this dissertation toward advancing the “income inequality thesis” is fourth-fold. First, I will evaluate and test some of the mechanisms that were proposed in the literature to explain the empirical relationship between higher inequality and worse well-being, i.e., the material pathway, the psychosocial pathway and the institutional pathway. In addition, I will also develop and test an additional mechanism not previously presented in the literature, i.e., a path through the level of societal corruption.

Second, I make the observation that the majority of the previous literature did not pay attention to the potentially different effects of inequality on various types of well-being measures. In the present dissertation I maintain that this distinction should be made and I choose the well-being measures in such a way to allow an evaluation of the differential effects of inequality on two dimensions of well-being, i.e., 1) physical health and 2) mental health and well-being.

Third, I note the point made by previous research that the detrimental effect of inequality on health should be stronger in those countries where the limits of economic growth are reached (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009b). Against this idea I maintain that the mechanisms that were advanced in the literature to explain why higher inequality should relate to worse health and well-being are formulated in general terms and could very well apply everywhere in the world. Furthermore, some of them should even be more relevant for the low and middle income countries (LMICs). Therefore, I purposively choose samples of countries with different levels of economic development in order to be able to derive conclusions on the role of the sample composition for the relationship between inequality and well-being.

Fourth, the majority of previous research has paid little attention to the potential differential effect of inequality for individuals with different characteristics. I will argue that some mechanisms could work differently for individuals with different socio-economic characteristics and in addition, some individual characteristics could act as protective factors against the potential detrimental effect of inequality on well-being. Subsequently, when the design of the studies allows it, I evaluate both theoretically and empirically the differential effect of inequality on well-being for different social categories.