Opportunity for Health

Monetizing illness: The influence of disability assistance priming on how we evaluate the health symptoms of others

Social Science and Medicine · March 1, 2015

For low-income families in the United States disability assistance has emerged as a critical income support program in the post-welfare reform era. This article explores how this monetization of illness—tying receipt of government assistance to a physical or mental condition—influences how individuals evaluate the severity of another individual’s health symptoms. Using data collected through a nationally representative survey experiment of adults in the United States (n = 1005) in May 2013, I find that respondents who are primed to consider the existence of disability assistance are less likely to rate the symptoms described in a hypothetical vignette as severe relative to the control group. I find evidence that this effect holds for both physical (back pain) and mental (depression) conditions for adults and behavioral conditions (ADHD) in children. Moreover, respondents in the experimental group were more likely to blame the individual for her health condition and this measure was found to partially mediate the effect of the disability assistance prime. These findings have important implications for researchers, policymakers and medical practitioners by illustrating how premising state assistance on a health condition may in turn shape how individuals evaluate the health symptoms of others.