Individual Wealth Rank, Community Wealth Inequality, and Self-Reported Adult Poor Health: A Test of Hypotheses with Panel Data (2002–2006) from Native Amazonians, Bolivia

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Abstract

Growing evidence suggests that economic inequality in a community harms the health of a person. Using panel data from a small-scale, preindustrial rural society, we test whether individual wealth rank and village wealth inequality affects self-reported poor health in a foraging–farming native Amazonian society. A person’s wealth rank was negatively but weakly associated with self-reported morbidity. Each step up/year in the village wealth hierarchy reduced total self-reported days ill by 0.4 percent. The Gini coefficient of village wealth inequality bore a positive association with self-reported poor health that was large in size, but not statistically significant. We found small village wealth inequality, and evidence that individual economic rank did not change. The modest effects may have to do with having used subjective rather than objective measures of health, having small village wealth inequality, and with the possibly true modest effect of a person’s wealth rank on health in a small-scale, kin-based society. Finally, we also found that an increase in mean individual wealth by village was related to worse self-reported health. As the Tsimane’ integrate into the market economy, their possibilities of wealth accumulation rise, which may affect their well-being. Our work contributes to recent efforts in biocultural anthropology to link the study of social inequalities, human biology, and human-environment interactions.