Background: Literature on the socio-economic 'gradient' in health often asserts that income is associated with better health not only for the very poor, but also across the entire income distribution. In addition, changes in the shape of the association between incomes during a period of increasing economic inequality have not been previously studied. The goal of the current study was to estimate and compare the shape of the relationship between income and mortality in the USA for the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s. Methods: Using income and mortality data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics for respondents aged 35-64 years, we used a Bayesian Cox Model with regression splines to model the risk of mortality over three 10-year follow-up periods. To identify whether income was more strongly associated with mortality at different parts of the income distribution, we treated income as a linear spline with an unknown knot location. Results: The shape of the association between income and mortality was quite non-linear, with a much stronger association at lower levels of income. The relationship between income and mortality in the USA was also not invariant across time, with the increased risk of death associated with lower income applying to an increasing proportion of the US population over time (9th percentile of income in 1970-79, 20th percentile in 1980-89 and 32nd percentile in 1990-99). Conclusions: Our analyses do not support the claim that income is associated with mortality throughout the income distribution, nor is the association between income and mortality the same across periods. Based on our analyses, a focus on the bottom 30% of the income distribution would seem to return the greatest benefits in reducing socio-economic inequalities in health. © The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Epidemiological Association. All rights reserved.