What We Know About the Obesity Pay Gap

3 min read
Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Nearly 42 percent of adults in the U.S. are considered obese, up from 30 percent in 2000.

Obesity is linked to many health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, and sleep problems. A body of research also demonstrates a link between obesity and socioeconomic status; in particular, people who are overweight tend to earn less money.

Further research has established that this discrepancy is partly due to discrimination. In fact, many state and local governments are considering enacting laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on weight; New York City passed one such law last month.

A new analysis from The Economist explores this connection further. Researchers analyzed data from 23,000 working Americans collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey included men and women working full-time and between the ages of 25 and 54.

Before we get to the results, it’s important to note that this analysis used body mass index, or BMI, to classify participants as obese, even as many doctors are moving away from using BMI to assess weight and health.

On the whole, the BMI of men in the recent analysis was unrelated to their wages. But, when researchers separated men with bachelor’s degrees, those classified as obese earned 5 percent less than their non-obese colleagues, even after accounting for age, race, and marital status. And obese men in the survey with graduate degrees earned 14 percent less than those who are not obese.

The same was true for women; obese women with bachelor’s degrees earned 12 percent less, and those with graduate degrees earned 19 percent less than their colleagues who were not obese.

The study concluded that well-educated, obese workers earn less than their non-obese counterparts. And the higher your education level, the greater the discrepancy.

Researchers also looked at the wage differences between obese and non-obese workers in different industries. Obese people working in health care experienced the largest wage gap, on average 12 percent lower compared to their non-obese colleagues. Those working in management, business, and finance also experienced larger wage gaps.

Interestingly, obese workers in production, construction, and agriculture earned more than their non-obese colleagues.

Adding up the overall cost of wage discrimination related to obesity, U.S. workers miss out on more than $70 billion a year, according to the analysis.

The take-home message: Weight discrimination affects both male and female employees in the U.S. Obese people with higher levels of education experience larger discrepancies compared to their non-obese colleagues.

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