New research group

Health and Social Inequality

Poor health is a card dealt early in life and catalyzed in part by educational underachievement and labor market inequalities. A new research group, founded in January 2019 and led by WZB researcher Jan Paul Heisig, is tackling important questions relating to health and social inequality. What is the role of health inequality in the transmission of social status from one generation to the next? And how do factors such as family background, educational attainment, and employment biographies impact both physical and mental health?

In recent decades, international research has clearly demonstrated the close ties between health and social inequality. The processes underlying this link are not well understood, however, and social science in Germany has been comparatively slow in taking up the topic. One of the most striking findings of existing research is that systematic inequalities in physical and mental health already exist very early in life: The health of young children is clearly tied to family background and the strength of this relationship grows stronger over time. Moreover, childhood and even in utero circumstances continue to predict health outcomes and mortality much later in life. Health chances and life expectancy are therefore strongly tied to the “lottery of birth.”

Against this background, the research group seeks to better understand the complex life course processes that link social background to physical and mental health and that underlie the well-documented cross-sectional associations between health and other dimensions of social inequality. The overarching research questions of the group are: Which channels link family background to health at different stages of life? How do health inequalities affect inequalities in other domains, such as educational and labor market attainment? How do these other dimensions in turn affect social inequalities in health? And: To what extent are these relationships moderated by public policy and other institutional factors?

The research group will use innovative methods and longitudinal data to answer these questions, ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of the complex life course processes that link health outcomes and health behaviors to social inequalities. Through historical and international comparisons, the group seeks to better understand how institutional factors such as social policy and healthcare systems shape the emergence of health inequalities and their consequences.

Portrait Foto Dr. Jan Paul Heisig (Foto: David Ausserhofer)
Foto: David Ausserhofer

Jan Paul Heisig is head of the Health and Social Inequality research group at the WZB.