By Lauren Storck, published on September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
The American dream promises that if we work hard, we can transcend
the social class we're born into. But it can't be ignored, according to a
growing body of research. Scientists are finding that socioeconomic
status--our relative status when it comes to education, job, income and
other factors--impacts our physical health.
At a recent National Institutes of Health conference, scientists
highlighted a powerful discovery: People of lower socioeconomic status
are mere likely to develop a serious disease--like heart disease or
cancer--and die early than people of higher social standing. The link
between status and health is mediated by complex biological pathways that
are not yet understood. But scientists de believe that psychological
factors such as stress, shame, depression, poor social support and
pessimism--all burdens of low social class-make the body vulnerable to
As a clinical psychologist, I believe that chronic exposure to
lower socioeconomic status produces vulnerability to illness and
biological deficits. The phases of my psychosocial model of development
apply to both individuals and groups: People marginalized by society are
initially unaware of their social standing (Phase 1). But someone
ridiculed for poverty clearly becomes aware of class status (Phase 2).
If, with maturity, people can consolidate these experiences into a useful
identity (Phase 3), resilience or healing can occur.
Further study is needed to sort out the psychosocial and biological
issues surrounding socioeconomic status and health. But understanding the
link will hopefully lead to public policy that can heal our citizens and
the country as a whole.
By Lauren Storck, Ph.D., clinical instructor in psychiatry, Harvard
Adapted by Ph.D.