Four Ways That Poverty Hurts Americans’ Long-Term Health

There’s a long list of reasons why poor Americans tend to be in poorer health than the more well-to-do. For instance, low-income people don’t usually live near hospitals and primary care doctors. And many can’t afford expensive treatments, often because they work part-time jobs that don’t offer health benefits and can’t afford to buy private insurance.

But the health disparities between the rich and the poor aren’t simply due to low-income Americans’ lack of access to treatment. Poverty also cuts off vital resources to the poor and places them in an environment of ongoing stress — and that has long-lasting effects on Americans’ general wellness that can be difficult to reverse. Here’s how poverty negatively affects Americans’ health over the long term:

1. Poverty prevents Americans from buying healthy food. This is one of the biggest contributors to poor health in low-income communities. Many of the poor, including those who rely on food stamps, have to patronize bodegas or mini-marts that sell salty snacks and the kinds of processed foods that cause hypertension, obesity, and diabetes in lieu of fresh produce. According to an Economic Research Service (ERS) report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.5 million Americans are both poor and live in low-income areas over a mile away from a supermarket that offers healthier food variety. On average, food stamp beneficiaries live about 1.8 miles away from a grocery store. Without a vehicle or public transportation to help these Americans get to the market and carry their groceries back home, many opt for high-calorie and unhealthy food instead. So it isn’t surprising that regions where poor people can’t get to supermarkets also have higher recorded rates of obesity and diabetes.

2. Poor people are more likely to smoke. Research shows that smokers tend to be lower-income and less educated Americans. But a new study from Duke Medicine suggests that isn’t a coincidence, and that those who grow up in poverty may actually be predisposed to picking up the unhealthy habit. That’s a consequence of economic stresses that inhibit Americans’ ability to self-regulate healthy behaviors. “Poverty during childhood not only appears to affect child development, but can have lasting effects on the types of health choices made during adolescence and early adulthood, especially as it relates to cigarette smoking,” wrote lead author Dr. Bernard Fuemmeler, an associate professor in Community and Family Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. “Economic strains may shape an individual’s capacity for self-control by diminishing opportunities for self-regulation, or affecting important brain structures.”


3. The poor live in regions with worse air quality. The American Lung Association reports that low-income and minority Americans live in areas with worse air quality. There isn’t a single concrete reason for this, although researchers point to the fact that poor people are more likely to live close to sources of pollution, like industrial plants that emit harmful particles. Unfortunately, certain low-income populations also suffer from medical problems that make air pollution even worse for their health. For instance, the elderly, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and people who live near a central city have far higher rates of diabetes and asthma — both conditions that are exacerbated by bad air quality. Air pollution has also been linked to kidney problems, lower birth weights, higher levels of infant mortality, and kills over 2.5 million people every year.

4. Economic insecurity has devastating consequences for both physical and mental health. Economic inequality takes a massive toll on mental health — even more so than warfare, by some accounts. In fact, new research has shown that the mental stress of being poor is a major reason that low-income people are more likely to have high blood pressure, cholesterol, and become obese or diabetic, since long-term stress creates hormones that compromise the immune system and promote weight gain. That trend towards poorer health actually begins in the womb, since mothers who are stressed during pregnancy are more likely to have children who are predisposed to developing diabetes and obesity, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. Yale University’s School of Medicine just released a new study finding that poor moms who don’t have an adequate supply of diapers often end up depressed or suffering from other mental illness — something which can be passed on to their children and affect their school performance and general health. Even Americans who eventually escape a life of poverty must deal with the long-term consequences and chronic conditions they’ve developed on their way out of it.