A recent study from Columbia University found that of all the health factors they measured, poverty had the greatest negative impact on health. The other factors they looked at included smoking, obesity, lack of health insurance, and binge drinking, all of which had a less significant impact on health outcomes than living in poverty. Poverty, defined as living below 200% of the United Stated Federal Poverty Level, was determined to take away 8.2 years of health, meaning poor people have 8.2 fewer years in which they are healthy than someone above 200% of the FPL (This is a standard measure of health burden, used by the WHO.) We should also be explicit that when we talk about poverty we talk about race – over 50% of black and Latino young adults live in poverty, compared to less than 30% of white young adults.
To which I respond, well, YES, clearly. But you would never know these things from the way we talk about health. Think about how many public health programs are focused directly on the spectre of obesity. There’s PE programs and school activity policies, public education campaigns (usually involving TV ads) to tell people to spend less time watching TV, there’s calorie labeling requirements and scolding people to go to their farmer’s markets and taxes on soda or foods with trans fat. Some of those policies may have worth, but their goal of eliminating TEH FAT ZOMG and thereby solving the health crisis is clearly misdirected. Even worse are the articles and attitudes engendered by this focus on obesity as a health issue, like this recent article in the LA Times, because they imply that a systemic issue like the health care problem can be resolved by individuals changing their lifestyles, rather than by systemic change on a much broader level.
The effect of poverty on health has been clearly documented. People who live in poverty are more likely to have asthma and diabetes. They’re way more likely to be exposed to parasites like toxocariasis, cysticercosis, and toxoplasmosis, which can have significant physical and neurological effects including seizures and developmental delays. They’re five times more likely to be exposed to lead paint as children. They’re twice as likely to have untreated cavities, which can lead to heart disease or infection and even death. This all means that from the beginning, even from birth, people living in poverty are more likely to develop or acquire a disability or chronic health condition.
It would seem, then, that addressing poverty in order to prevent those negative health outcomes would be a public health priority. But it really isn’t – poverty programs are rarely described as health programs. When a politician starts talking about welfare, they’re talking about cash payments to help parents raise their kids, to preserve and support families. They don’t talk about how assisting a family out of poverty will make that whole family healthier, and less in need of health care. And addressing the negative health effects of poverty – safely removing all the lead paint, preventing slum housing conditions like cockroach infestations and mold that contribute to asthma, get them some access to dental care – would have an enormously beneficial effect on hundreds of thousands of individuals and on the health care system as a whole. However, addressing the systemic effects of poverty isn’t nearly as easy as shaming “the fatties” and slapping some calorie numbers on menus.
This is especially galling because there is so much overlap between the community of PWDs and people in poverty. A recent study found that almost half of working-age adults who experience poverty for at least a 12-month period have one or more disabilities. People with disabilities account for a larger share of those experiencing poverty than people in all other minority, ethnic and racial groups combined and are even a larger group than single parents. Families with more than one member with a disability are even more likely to be living in poverty. There are two things going on here. First, people who live in poverty are more likely to be or become PWDs, partly because of the health factors discussed above. But also, PWDs are more likely to live in poverty, partly because of the cost of health care.
All of this suggests that our conversations about health care need to include ideas about addressing poverty and that our work on poverty issues has special effects on health and disability. Hurrah for intersectionality!