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Disability and Marginal Utility of Income


  • Tengstam, Sven

    () (Department of Economics, School of Business, Economics and Law, Göteborg University)


It is often assumed that disability lowers the marginal utility of income. In this article individuals’ marginal utility of income in two states, (1) paralyzed in both legs from birth and (2) not mobility impaired at all, are measured through experimental choices between imagined lotteries behind a so-called “veil of ignorance”. The outcomes of the lotteries include both income and disability status. It is found that most people have higher marginal utility when paralyzed than when not mobility impaired at all. The median ratio of the two marginal utilities is estimated at between 1.16 and 1.92. The two marginal utilities are evaluated at the same levels of income. Quite little of the heterogeneity in this ratio can be explained by socio-economic background, but having personal experience of mobility impairment and supporting the Left party, the Social democratic party, the Green party or the Liberal party are associated with having a high ratio. The results suggest, in contrast to e.g. Finkelstein et al. (2008) and Viscusi and Evans (1990) that more than full insurance of income losses connected to being disabled is optimal. The results further suggests, in contrast to e.g. Sen (1997) and Roemer (1985, 1996, 2001), that given a utilitarian social welfare function resources should be transferred to, rather than from, disabled people. Finally, if the transfers are not large enough to smooth out the marginal utilities of the disabled and the non-disabled, distributional weights based on disability status (in opposite to income) should be used in cost-benefit analysis.

Suggested Citation

  • Tengstam, Sven, 2007. "Disability and Marginal Utility of Income," Working Papers in Economics 276, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economics, revised 20 Jan 2012.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:gunwpe:0276

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    Cited by:

    1. Filipova-Neumann, Lilia & Hoy, Michael, 2014. "Managing genetic tests, surveillance, and preventive medicine under a public health insurance system," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 34(C), pages 31-41.
    2. Richard Cookson & Owen Cotton-Barrett & Matthew Adler & Miqdad Asaria & Toby Ord, 2016. "Years of good life based on income and health: Re-engineering cost-benefit analysis to examine policy impacts on wellbeing and distributive justice," Working Papers 132cherp, Centre for Health Economics, University of York.

    More about this item


    Disability; Mobility impairment; Marginal utility; Hypothetical lotteries; Risk;

    JEL classification:

    • D10 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - General
    • D60 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - General
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • I10 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - General
    • I30 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - General

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