Reframing inequality? The health inequalities turn as a dangerous frame shift

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Abstract

Background

Politicians in many countries have embraced the notion that health inequalities derive from socioeconomic inequalities, but European governments have for the most part failed to enact policies that would reduce underlying social inequalities.

Methods

Data are drawn from 84 in-depth interviews with policy-makers in four European countries between 2012 and 2015, qualitative content analysis of recent health inequalities policy documents, and secondary literature on the barriers to implementing evidence-based health inequalities policies.

Results

Institutional and political barriers are important barriers to effective policy. Both policy-making institutions and the ideas and practices associated with neoliberalism reinforce medical-individualist models of health, strengthen actors with material interests opposed to policies that would increase equity, and undermine policy action to tackle the fundamental causes of social (including health) inequalities.

Conclusions

Medicalizing inequality is more appealing to most politicians than tackling income and wage inequality head-on, but it results in framing the problem of social inequality in a way that makes it technically quite difficult to solve. Policy-makers should consider adopting more traditional programs of taxation, redistribution and labor market regulation in order to reduce both health inequalities and the underlying social inequalities.

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