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Ichiro Kawachi: How wealth inequality fuels poor health, and vice versa

Rich and poor in Sao Paulo, Brazil. An increasingly common sight worldwide are slums next to wealthy enclaves. Researchers focused on tracking global health progress say measures must include social and economic factors. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we’re talking with Ichiro Kawachi, a physician and epidemiologist with all sorts of titles at Harvard University – chairman the department of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb professor of social epidemiology.

Ichiro Kawachi

What we talk with Kawachi about is the connection between the wealth inequality and health. It’s probably not too surprising to anyone to hear that individuals with more wealth tend to have better health, or at least better health care.

But it may surprise some to say that the wealthiest country on the planet, the good old USA, ranks pretty poorly when it comes to health overall. A recent report in The Lancet, in fact, noted that unlike in most rich countries Americans are seeing a decline in life expectancy (and are even becoming comparatively shorter – perhaps due to poor childhood nutrition).

This is the sorry state of affairs when we look at American health across the population. In the interview, Kawachi joked that his career path may lead to shortening his life since he was born and raised until age 12 in Japan (with one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world), then moved with his family to New Zealand (moderately high life expectancy) and finally landing a teaching position Harvard starting in the early 1990s (which means he now lives in a nation with a fairly low life expectancy). Tom Paulson caught up with Kawachi while he was in Seattle this week, speaking mostly at the University of Washington, to talk about the connection between wealth and health.

As usual, Tom and I open the podcast by first highlighting news in the Humanosphere beginning with Tom Murphy’s report on countries making it harder for migrant workers to send money back home – so-called remittances. Also on the immigration front, we take note of a story by Lisa Nikolau on how the Trump Administration’s new, more aggressive approach to deporting undocumented immigrants appears to be targeting young people.

We also wanted to flag Joanne Lu’s story on the challenge facing Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in his admirable effort to reduce the gap between rich and poor in that nation. Speaking of inequality, Joanne also wrote a great story with a bleakly humorous photo of a homeless guy sleeping on a Ronald MacDonald bench statue with the headline China can still reverse inequality before it gets as bad as the US.

Nice segue into our discussion with Kawachi, who explains how rising wealth and income inequality makes us sicker. Listen in!

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or