The relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and women’s physical health warrants further study, particularly through a social work lens. SES is determined by more than income; SES is also influenced by one’s level of education, individual perceptions of social standings, and overall financial security. A lower SES increases the likelihood that one will develop physical and mental health issues over the course of the lifetime.1 With low SES influencing women’s education and social standings, the increased risk warrants further research into the impacts these detriments have on women specifically through a social work lens.
Women are already at greater risk for experiencing various forms of systemic and institutional discrimination. Wang and Geng (2019) found that those with a low SES are more likely to experience a decline in exercise and quality of sleep, and an increase in substance use.2 Kivimäki et al. (2020) suggest that numerous unhealthy lifestyle choices are related to socioeconomic disadvantage.1 Further, lower SES is correlated with poor self-reported health outcomes and lower life expectancies.3 While these findings are not exclusive to women, low SES is one of many compounding factors that are detrimental to a woman’s health and wellbeing. Social work is hallmarked by a commitment to promoting the wellbeing of all people with an emphasis on marginalized populations. Additional research on the relationship between women’s physical health and SES could open new pathways for further study, advocacy, and service implementation within the range of social work contexts.
Status of the Literature
The literature on the impacts of socioeconomic status on women’s physical health is fairly extensive; however, there is a dearth of articles exploring direct implications for social work practice. Lower SES and the experience of poverty are major factors influencing physical health outcomes for women. Lower income and wage inequality can contribute to a multitude of negative physical health outcomes for women, sometimes even leading to premature death.4 The interrelated, cyclical nature of lower SES, less education, poverty, and various health issues is largely overlooked in literature when examining the impacts on women specifically. Income disparities based on gender continue to exist in the United States. Such disparities create further difficulties for women seeking access to resources and services that promote their physical wellbeing. Women belonging to marginalized populations experience the compounded effects of various institutional, systemic, and cultural barriers. Many of the resources and forms of assistance that individuals of low SES seek are rendered necessary because of the barriers imposed by poverty itself. Additionally, lower SES and poverty often create interpersonal challenges for women which also impact physical health.
Interpersonal violence (IPV) and abuse have major impacts on women’s overall physical health. Rates of IPV are higher among minoritized, undocumented, and lower SES women, posing a major risk to their physical health. Physically abusive relationships often impact women’s daily functioning due to increased rates of broken bones, diseases, chronic disorders, and gynecological problems. In addition to these risks, women experiencing IPV and abuse are at increased risk of substance abuse or becoming suicidal.5 Exploring the connections between SES, IPV, and physical health in women in the context of social work practice holds the potential for vast improvements in service delivery and subsequent outcomes.
Call to Action
Social workers serve many clients of low SES across various populations. It is critical that social workers recognize the profound impacts of low SES on women’s physical health. Promoting and engaging in evidence-informed practice and practice-informed research are ethical responsibilities integral to good social work practice. Doing so is essential for the betterment of those seeking direct services and, subsequently, wider society.
Continued research into the relationship between women’s socioeconomic status, poverty, and physical health will allow for increased understanding and improved quality of care. East & Roll (2015) recommend that social workers in clinical and community settings better recognize how gender-based inequalities impact the women they work with;6 however, additional research into the larger impacts that low SES has on women’s physical health and overall wellbeing can benefit all those who work with women and their loved ones. Understanding systemic barriers that women face allows social workers, and other professionals, to operate more efficiently in their work on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Additional research on the connection between women’s physical health and SES through the lens of social work practice will benefit clients and professionals alike.
1. Kivimäki, M., Batty, G. D., Pentti, J., Shipley, M. J., Sipilä, P. N., Nyberg, S. T., … & Marmot, M. G. (2020). Association between socioeconomic status and the development of mental and physical health conditions in adulthood: a multi-cohort study. The Lancet Public Health, 5(3), e140-e149.
2. Wang, J., & Geng, L. (2019). Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Physical and Psychological Health: Lifestyle as a Mediator. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(2), 281. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16020281
3. Arpey, N. C., Gaglioti, A. H., & Rosenbaum, M. E. (2017). How Socioeconomic Status Affects Patient Perceptions of Health Care: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Primary Care & Community Health, 169–175. https://doi.org/10.1177/2150131917697439
4. Gilroy, H., Nava, A., Maddoux, J., Mcfarlane, J., Symes, L., Koci, A., & Fredland, N. (2014). Poverty, Partner Abuse, and Women’s Mental Health: New Knowledge for Better Practice. Journal of Social Service Research, 41(2), 145–157. https://doi.org/10.1080/01488376.2014.972010
5. Vil, N. M., Sabri, B., Nwokolo, V., Alexander, K. A., & Campbell, J. C. (2016). A Qualitative Study of Survival Strategies Used by Low-Income Black Women Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence. Social Work, 62(1), 63-71. doi:10.1093/sw/sww080
6. East, J. F., & Roll, S. J. (2015). Women, Poverty, and Trauma: An Empowerment Practice Approach. Social Work, 60(4), 279-286. doi:10.1093/sw/swv030
Powell DK, Lockyer CA, and Broadbent JG (2021). The Impact of Socioeconomic Status on Women’s Physical Health. Utah Women’s Health Review. doi: https://doi.org/10.26054/0D-T66J-A0ZE