Rising inflation is causing significant stress in the US population, especially among women and the socioeconomically vulnerable, a new study indicates.
An examination of data from a US Census Bureau survey found that after adjustment for socioeconomic status (SES), the risk for inflation stress was 28% higher among women than among men. The extent to which inflation-related stress contributed to disparities in health outcomes is unclear, however.
“Inflation stress is not borne equally within the population,” lead author Cary Wu, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at York University in Toronto, Canada, told Medscape Medical News. “My research shows that women are more likely than men to find inflation stressful. This could come from the gendered roles that lead to their higher exposure to price changes. Racial minorities who are often occupying lower SES also show higher odds of finding inflation stressful.”
The study was published May 15 in JAMA Network Open.
SES and Stress
For their study, the researchers analyzed data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an online, probability-based survey that measures the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergent issues on American households. The researchers examined data collected from September 2022 to February 2023. The survey included question, “How stressful has the increase in prices in the last 2 months been for you?” The researchers also examined sociodemographic variables, such as gender, race and ethnicity, age, marital status, education, and household income.
Among 369,328 respondents, 5.1% were Asian, 11.2% were Black, 17.3% were Hispanic, and 62.1% were White. Women made up 51.3% of the group, roughly one third (31.8%) had a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, and the median age of the respondents was 49 years. Among the 93.2% of respondents who reported that prices had increased in the past 2 months, 47.3% indicated that this was very stressful, 28.2% described it as being moderately stressful, 18.9% felt it was a little stressful, and 5.6% did not find it stressful.
A base model that included gender, race, marital status, age, region, and week of survey indicated that women had significantly higher inflation-related stress than men (odds ratio [OR], 1.30). Black and Hispanic respondents reported higher inflation stress than White respondents (OR, 1.25 and 1.65, respectively). In contrast, Asian respondents reported lower inflation stress than White respondents (OR, 0.86).
Compared with married respondents, those who were widowed, divorced, or separated experienced higher inflation stress (OR, 1.54; OR, 1.57 and 1.99, respectively). Inflation stress was higher among respondents aged 31 to 40 years (OR, 1.11) than among those who were older or younger.
In a second model, the researchers added level of education and household income as indicators of SES. “Comparing changes in the effects of demographic variables between the two models provides a general idea about how socioeconomic inequalities in terms of education and household income may or may not account for the demographic disparities in inflation stress,” they explain.
The subsequent analysis showed that higher education, such as having a graduate degree, and income levels of $200,000 or above were associated with lower inflation stress (OR, 0.41 and 0.14, respectively). Inclusion of the SES indicators had little influence in the gender outcome but did change the race results: Black respondents’ inflation stress was no longer significantly different from that of White respondents, and Asian respondents showed slightly higher inflation stress (OR, 1.07).
“SES also seemed to explain a significant share of differences in inflation stress across marital status,” the researchers note. The higher inflation stress among respondents aged 31 to 40 years became more substantial after adjusting for SES differences (OR, 1.30).
“In the time of high inflation, there is an urgent need for research and policy development to safeguard public health and prevent the worsening of health disparities,” write the authors.
Especially for high-risk groups, “physicians can play a crucial role in helping patients avoid the health impacts of inflation stress,” said Wu. “By addressing mental health concerns, promoting healthy lifestyle choices, providing support for chronic condition management, and offering educational resources, physicians can support their patients in navigating the challenges associated with inflation stress and promote overall well-being.”
Studying Health Disparities
Commenting on the findings for Medscape, Wan‐Chin Kuo, PhD, RN, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, said, “The authors used an innovative approach and nationally representative dataset to examine racial and ethnic differences in Americans’ subjective perception regarding current soaring inflation rates. They identified strong gender differences and a gradient increment in inflation-related stress as income and education brackets decreased. They further found that the adjustment of income and education redistributes the inflation-related stress across racial–ethnic groups. In addition to the importance of the subject matter, the quantification of inflation-related stress and its links to health disparities merit discussion.” Kuo did not participate in the study.
She noted, however, that when examining inflation-related stress, “one should consider financial stress and financial status in context.” In a recent study, Kuo distinguished between financial stress “as a subjective feeling of insufficient financial resources” and as “assessed through objective indicators other than income, such as assets, housing, mortgage, employment, or food stamps.” The current study, however, quantified inflation-related stress “using a single question without the important context related to financial stress. Therefore, their findings might be confounded by personal values or beliefs, standards of living, financial status, and living environments.”
Kuo emphasized that “while the authors tried to tie their findings to the explanation of health disparities, it is important to recognize that health outcomes, health behaviors, or health-related quality of life were not objectively or subjectively assessed in the current study. It remains unanswered in terms of the extent to which inflation-related stress impacts health outcomes in socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic minorities.”
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for the study. Wu and Kuo have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
JAMA Netw Open. Published May 15, 2023. Full text
Kate Johnson is a Montreal-based freelance medical journalist who has been writing for more than 30 years about all areas of medicine.
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