Tag Archives: Wealth

How your sewage reflects how wealthy you are

There’s a lot you can learn from a person’s sewage sludge. In the past, researchers have employed wastewater epidemiology to study trends in drug consumption based on a community’s urine and poop that drains in the sewer. One such study, for instance, found that London has the highest concentration of cocaine in its sewage out of 50 large European cities. Now, a new study used similar methods to gauge the socioeconomic status of different urban communities.

Credit Pixabay.

Researchers in Australia analyzed samples from 22 water treatment plants in six of the country’s states in 2016. The chemicals they found were correlated with 40 different socioeconomic factors for each area, like education, rent price, etc.

Inverse reports that the researchers eventually learned that the wastewater from wealthier communities (where rent was over $470/week) showed higher levels of vitamins, citrus, and fiber, while poorer communities showed higher levels of prescription pain relievers and antidepressant medications.

Some of the prescription drugs that were more present in poorer communities included tramadol, desvenlafaxine, mirtazapine, pregabalin, atenolol. Meanwhile, sewage from wealthier households contained higher levels of proline betaine, a component of citrus flesh, as well as enterodiol and enterolactone, which are plant by-products. These signatures suggest that these households consume more fresh fruits and vegetables than lower-income communities.

The sewage of high-income households also had higher levels of vitamins B3, E, and B6 than lower-income communities.

“Our study shows that chemicals in wastewater reflect the social, demographic, and economic properties of the respective populations and highlights the potential value of wastewater in studying the sociodemographic determinants of population health,” the authors wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Waste-water epidemiology is still in its infancy, but studies such as these show just how powerful this method can be to tease out all sorts of trends — so powerful that some have criticized it for infringing on people’s privacy, not unlike mass surveillance.

Other scientists are looking at the untapped potential of sewage in different ways. One group has found a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly method that can produce energy from sewage using purple bacteria. Sewer sludge may also be a literally golden opportunity. One study estimated that a city with 1 million inhabitats has as much as $13 million worth of valuable metals, including gold and silver, in its sewage sludge.

If you have at least $50,000 net worth in your 40s, you’ll likely live longer than most people

Credit: Pixabay.

Income inequality in the United States has increased substantially over the last three decades, with overall levels of inequality dangerously approaching the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression. Despite generous stipends such as stimulus checks, the pandemic will likely only widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

But while income inequality and the pressure on the social fabric are important topics of research, not nearly enough attention has been given to wealth disparities, which are far greater and growing at a faster rate than income inequality in the United States. Wealth inequality is particularly important in the context of population health and longevity.

Individuals with greater wealth are better equipped to access medical care, safe places to work and exercise, fresh foods, and are more protected against economic shocks, such as losing a job, unexpected medical emergencies, and other financial crises.

While the impact of wealth on health, in general, cannot be denied, just how much it matters has always been unclear due to a murky environment of confounding factors such as upbringing, genetics, education, and lifestyle choices. Do wealthy individuals tend to live longer by virtue of their financial status alone or do people with a healthy lifestyle, good genetics, or supportive parents tend to both live longer and make more money? Hard to say.

Every additional $50,000 of net worth reduces your risk of death by 5%

This is where a new study from Northwestern University might come in handy. Unlike other studies before it that investigated the effects of a person’s net worth — the difference between a person’s total financial assets and their liabilities — this time, the researchers included siblings and twin pair data. This allowed the researchers to minimize the effect of genetics and upbringing, and focus on how wealth impacts longevity.

For their study, the researchers accessed the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) project, a longitudinal study on aging that was first established in 1989. The study included nearly 5,400 adults who between 1994 and 1996 had an average age of 46.7 years and a mean net worth of $122,153. Approximately half of the participants were ‘singletons’ (individuals with no siblings), while about 2,490 participants were grouped into siblings and twin pairs. A follow-up was performed 24 years later to see how many of the initial participants were still alive and what their health condition was.

The researchers used survival models to analyze the association between net worth and longevity. They found that, across the entire sample, and regardless of whether or not they had any brothers or sisters, net worth was associated with lower mortality risk.

Specifically, the researchers found that for every additional $50,000 of net worth accumulated at midlife, the risk of death later in life dropped by 5%.

Things were more interesting when comparing longevity in siblings and twin pairs. The researchers found that the sibling or twin with more assets under their names lived considerably longer than their less well-off co-sibling/twin.  A difference of $139,000 in net worth was associated with a 13% relative decrease in the probability of death nearly 24 years later, favoring the family member with a higher net worth, the researchers noted in their study published in JAMA Health Forum.

“The within-family association provides strong evidence that an association between wealth accumulation and life expectancy exists, because comparing siblings within the same family to each other controls for all of the life experience and biology that they share,” said corresponding author Eric Finegood, a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.

It may be possible that individuals with serious health conditions, such as heart disease or cancer, could find themselves incapable of accruing significant wealth due to healthcare costs and work limitations. But when the Northwestern researchers ran the models again using only a sample of individuals without cancer or heart disease, the within-family association between wealth and longevity remained valid.

“Far too many American families are living paycheck to paycheck with little to no financial savings to draw on in times of need, said Greg Miller, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “At the same time, wealth inequality has skyrocketed. Our results suggest that building wealth is important for health at the individual level, even after accounting for where one starts out in life. So, from a public health perspective, policies that support and protect individuals’ ability to achieve financial security are needed.”   

The wealth gap is at least 6,500 years old, finds Polish study

More than 6,500 years ago, in what is now northern Poland, the wealthy already ate much better than the poor, according to a new study. The findings show that a wealth gap existed much earlier than we thought and provide insights on some of Europe’s earliest farmers.

Some of the skeletons looked in the study. Credit Antiquity

Chelsea Budd from the Umeå University in Sweden and her colleagues looked at 6,600-year-old gravesites in the town of Osłonki to try to determine whether wealth inequality existed in these ancient societies. A quarter of them had been buried with copper beads, pendants, and headbands, according to their findings.

However, researchers were unsure whether this inequality in death translated into a wealth gap in life. Wealthy graves may reflect funerary donations to valued community members not necessarily their wealth in life, they argued. That’s why they took the study a step further.

Budd and her team examined stable isotopes from different burials at Osłonki. These are chemical elements such as carbon and nitrogen incorporated into someone’s skeleton that vary based on their diet.

“Initially, we were just interested in studying the food they ate to understand the development of farming,” said Budd in a statement.

However, the findings were very interesting. Those who had been buried with valuable beads and elaborate copper artifacts seem to have been wealthier in life as well as in death. The isotopes show that they probably had better access to cattle from high-quality pastures.

Furthermore, as agricultural land is often inherited, the likelihood that this inequality is multigenerational increases. The researchers believe that these high social classes probably are the descendants of the first humans that arrived in the Polish town, who would have taken the best pastures.

“We have uncovered some of the earliest evidence for a direct link between social status and long-term diet in prehistoric Europe,” said Budd.

“We are witnessing the emergence of social and economic inequality in early prehistoric communities – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ – at a time much earlier than we thought.”

Budd and her team argued that farming wealth probably translated into more trading opportunities and material wealth, as most of the valuable grave goods were imported over long distances, with the copper needed to manufacture the artifacts originating far away in south-central Europe.

The town of Osłonki lasted for around 200 years, experiencing a rise in conflict and the construction of a wall and a ditch. Finally, around 4,400 BC, it was abandoned alongside many other communities in the region. This triggered the breakdown of the trade networks that introduced valuable goods into Northern Europe.

The study was published in the journal Antiquity.

Oxen, the ‘robots of the late Neolithic’ jump-started economic inequality

New research is looking at the birth of economic inequality — and says it came riding the ox.

Image credits Jan Nijman.

Research at the Santa Fe Institute reveals how the deep and lasting economic divisions that took root in Eurasia around seven thousand years ago can be traced back to the adoption of the ox-drawn plow. This advancement, the team explains, decoupled productivity from human labor, which led to the social strata of haves and have-nots.

State of the cart

“Ox drawn plows were the robots of the late Neolithic,” explains co-author Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute.

“The effect was the same as today: growing economic disparities between those who owned the robots and those whose work the robots displaced.”

The team charts the surge of prehistoric inequality that sprouted around seven thousand years ago in societies across Eurasia in a new study. The economic origins of this surge, they explain, lies in the adoption of ox-drawn plows. Their results conflict with the long-held view that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture led to the rise of inequality.

According to the team, it wasn’t agriculture that caused it — it was a technology that made land more valuable and labor less.

In the first of two companion papers, the team presents new statistical methods of comparing wealth inequality needed for the ancient world — ones that can be applied to different kinds of wealth, societies, and regions, at different times throughout history. The team’s analysis included data from 150 archaeological sites and revealed a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia around 4,000 BC. That year is important as it’s several millennia after the advent of agriculture. This, along with the fact that the team “observed that some societies who adopted agriculture were remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years,” suggests agriculture didn’t cause the rise in inequality.

“The surprise here isn’t so much that inequality takes off later on, it’s that it stayed low for such a long time,” says lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

The team explains that agriculture around 4,000 BC (at least in Europe and the Middle East) revolved around patchworks of small garden plots, similar to today’s allotments in the UK.

Families would work together to grow crops on these plots, mostly cereals and pulses. Work was done by hand — the soil was tilled using hoes, sometimes using unspecialized cattle such as aging milk cows, and the crops needed to be harvested by hand. Take into consideration that the plots also needed constant surveillance to protect them from wild animals, and you get quite the busy landscape. In effect, how much work a family was able to put out limited how much food they were able to produce.

Where the cow comes in

Image credits Peter Wieser.

However, those farmers who could raise and maintain specialized cattle (plow oxen) could work much more land — a single farmer with an ox team could cultivate ten times the land area of a farmer that only used a hoe. In time, their greater production capability gave them access to more resources, which they used to acquire more land and oxen. The team explains that those who owned land and ox teams also began to primarily work with more stress-tolerant crops, like barley or certain kinds of wheat, further reducing the amount of labor they needed to put in.

By the second millenium BC, farming landscapes had transitioned to large fields, and societies were deeply divided between landowners (who passed their holdings to their children), and land-poor or landless families.

How this transition took place is detailed in the team’s second accompanying paper. It shows a key distinction between farming systems where human labor was the limiting factor for production versus those where human labor was more expendable, and land became the limiting factor.

“So long as labor was the key input for production, inequality was limited because families did not differ much in how much labor they could deploy to produce crops,” explains co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University. “But when the most important input became land, differences between families widened because land and other material forms of wealth could be accumulated and transmitted over generations.””By chance, or force, or hard work, some families came to have a lot more than others. Then radical inequality arose.”

One consequence of inequality, Bogaard notes, is that the most unequal societies tended to be more fragile and susceptible to political upheaval or climate change. The team cautions that their findings, although dealing with ancient events, are still very much relevant today.

“If there are opportunities to monopolize land or other key assets in a production system, people will. And if there aren’t institutional or other redistributive mechanisms, inequality is always where we’re going to end up,” Bogaard says. “There are many other kinds of assets now that we should think about people’s capacity to own and benefit from [apart from land].”

The paper “Comparing ancient inequalities: the challenges of comparability, bias, and precision” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

Men who flash their wealth are perceived as unsuitable long-term partners

Credit: Max Pixel.

Studies suggest that women generally prefer physical qualities when they have a fling in mind, while a man’s wealth is a more desirable quality when considering a long-term relationship. But how a man signals his wealth can also influence the framing of the relationship. According to new research, women can see through the bling and will generally consider a man who’s flaunting his wealth — by buying a flashy car, for instance — as a less suitable life partner than men with more practical considerations.

Male peacocking

Peacocks were one of Charles Darwin‘s long-standing dilemmas. They gave him headaches when devising the theory of evolution by natural selection. The peacock’s long tails and elaborate plumage did not confer any survival advantage — actually, the flashy plumage made them stand out, making them more vulnerable to predators. Darwin realized, however, that these features made the peacock’s more attractive to potential mates, conferring a reproductive advantage. He concluded that males who succeed in reproductive competitions will have more offspring and, thus, their traits will be selected for, even if such traits may lead to detrimental consequences in terms of survivability.

Later, psychologists found a similar puzzle when describing individuals who spent disproportionate amounts of resources on luxury goods relative to their utility, or made considerable charitable contributions that did not return economic benefits. They later concluded, however, that such conspicuous expenditure of resources incurred indirect benefits by raising prestige. Modern evolutionary psychologists now consider human male display of wealth as a costly signal strategy which is analogous to the peacock’s tail, thereby enhancing perceived attractiveness to women.

Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan and Jessica Kruger at the University at Buffalo recruited two groups of undergraduate students who had to complete anonymous online surveys. The participants were presented with descriptions of two men who were purchasing cars. Both men had the same budget. However, one made a frugal purchase by buying a new car that’s reliable but rather boring. The other bought a used car but then spent the remaining budget on cosmetical enhancements such as larger rims, a new paint job, and a banging sound system.

Each participant, both male and female, had to rate each fictional character on dating and parenting behaviors, but also his interest in relationships and attractiveness to others. Consistently, for both males and females, the man with the flashy car was rated as being more interested in brief sexual relationships. Although this character was rated highly for the effort he made in securing a mate, he was rated poorly on his willingness to invest in a potential long-term romantic relationship. The man with the boring car scored much higher and received top marks as a life partner, parent, and provider.

“Participants demonstrated an intuitive understanding that men investing in the display of goods featuring exaggerated sensory properties have reproductive strategies with higher mating effort and greater interest in short-term sexual relationships, as well as lower paternal investment and interest in long-term committed romantic relationships than men investing in practical considerations,” explains Daniel Kruger.

The findings suggest that there are nuances in perceived male attractiveness that go-beyond the popular “man displays wealth, man signals he can care for offspring” paradigm.

“This contrasts with the notion that men’s conspicuous resource displays are attractive to women because they reliably signal expected future resource investment in partners and especially in offspring,” adds Jessica Kruger, who says the study increases researchers’ understanding of how human psychology and behavior applies to technologically advanced and wealthy societies.

Scientific reference: Kruger, D.J. & Kruger, J.S. (2018). What do Economically Costly Signals Signal? A Life History Framework for Interpreting Conspicuous Consumption, Evolutionary Psychological ScienceDOI: 10.1007/s40806-018-0151-y.

Fast Food.

It’s not just the poor: all Americans eat fast food about as often

If there’s a common denominator for every American today, it’s got to be fast food, researchers report. Everyone is having a bite, regardless of socio-economic background.

Fast Food.

Popular wisdom says that the poor gorge on fast-food and the rich dine on fine, healthy courses. There is definitely a kernel of truth to this stereotype, as fast food is usually very cheap, feels like a filling meal as it’s high in fats and salt, so it seems a good deal. For people who don’t have the shops or (especially) time or to ensure they get a healthy, balanced diet, fast food seems like a viable alternative — but it’s actually a barren wasteland from a nutrient point of view.

But the stereotype needs to be revisited, according to a team from the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Following a nationwide study of young baby boomers, they report that middle-income Americans are the most likely socio-economic group to eat fast food. There was only a relatively small difference between them and the other groups, however, suggesting that everyone bites in — even the richest people were only slightly less likely to report eating fast food.


Fast food, wide reach

“It’s not mostly poor people eating fast food in America,” said Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research.

“Rich people may have more eating options, but that’s not stopping them from going to places like McDonald’s or KFC.”

Zagorsky worked on the study with Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. They used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey conducted y Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research which has been questioning the same group of randomly selected Americans from 1979 to today.

The team drew on data from around 8,000 people who were questioned on their fast-food consumption in 2008, 2010 and 2012 as part of the survey. The surveyees, who were in their 40s and 50s at the time they answered the questions, were asked how many times they had eaten “food from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell” in the past week.

The results were compared to the participants’ reported income and wealth. All in all, 79% of respondents ate fast food at least once and 23% ate three or more meals during any one of the weeks recorded in the study. While the team did find some slight differences in how fast-food consumption related to both self-reported indices, Zagorsky says that the results were statistically similar.

In one analysis of the data, the team divided the participants into 10 groups based on income. Around 80% in the lowest bracket, 85% of those in the middle (brackets 4 and 5), and about 75% in the highest bracket reported eating fast food least once in the last week. Some pretty consistent numbers overall.

A similar pattern emerged when the team looked at the number of fast-food meals eaten during the three weeks of the study. People in the lower bracket ate 3.6, those in the middle brackets ate 4.2, and those in the highest bracket ate 3 fast food meals during this timeframe.

The team also found that people whose income or wealth changed significantly since 2012 (either for good or for worse) didn’t actually change their eating habits.

So what does matter?

One defining feature of those who relied heavily on fast food for their meals was a lack of time — or time poverty. The authors report that fast food eaters tended to have less leisure time and were more likely to work — and work more hours — than their counterparts.

Another surprise find represented one very select group of people. The team reports that in 2008, 10 respondents claimed to eat only at fast-food restaurants, as did five people in 2010, and two in 2012. Given that the total sample was of 8,000 people, it’s likely that there are only a few people in the US who only eat fast food for longer periods of time.

Still, the study is not without limitations. First, participants were asked if they ate fast food, not what they ate. Some fast food restaurants do carry healthier options such as salads, or non-food items such as coffee. The study included only people in their 40s or 50s, so the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt when expanding to other age groups.

But all in all, the study is a good starting point for policy designed to fight obesity or improve the overall nutrition of the average American consumer.

“If government wants to get involved in regulating nutrition and food choices, it should be based on facts. This study helps reject the myth that poor people eat more fast food than others and may need special protection,” Zagorsky said.

The full paper “The association between socioeconomic status and adult fast-food consumption in the U.S.” has been published in the journal  Economics & Human Biology.