Poverty may be America’s greatest public health crisis
Second in a six-part series
Poverty and poor health worldwide are inextricably linked… Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of poor health. Poverty increases the chances of poor health. Poor health in turn traps communities in poverty. — Health Poverty Action
Poverty’s harsh effects on health start before babies are born and pile up throughout their adult lives. With stressed-filled homes, shaky nutrition, toxic environments and health-care gaps of every kind, kids in very low-income families may never catch up when it comes to their health. — Lisa Esposito
The World Health Organization estimates that, across the globe, poverty directly contributes to the deaths of 18 million people each year. Yet, others such as The One Campaign insist that at least that many children alone die annually from malnutrition, which if true, would account for close to half of all deaths on the planet. Regardless of the actual number, it is clear that extreme poverty decimates our world through disease, hunger, and lack of access to clean water and medicine, alongside other maladies.
Of course, it is not difficult to argue that the extreme poverty that plagues much of the world is substantively different than poverty in the developed world, including the United States. And still, the extreme physical effects that poverty has on its victims in America are undeniable.
A study from the National Institute of Health reveals that “about 4.5 percent of all deaths in the United States are caused by poverty-related deficiencies and that poverty is a contributing factor in still more deaths.” Additional research from Columbia University’s School of Public Health calculates the number of yearly deaths in this from “poverty-related issues” to be in the hundreds of thousands, which some suggest make it the leading cause of death in this country.
Now, it may be rather difficult to accurately quantify such a figure; however, it is quite easy to link the relationship between poverty and the physical impact it has on the health outcomes of Americans regardless of race, sex or age. Poor Americans disparately suffer from a multitude of illnesses and chronic diseases, including various forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, stress-related illness, and other physical disorders.
In addition to hunger and poor nutrition, substandard housing, transportation barriers, and limited access to quality health care, another critical factor that often plays a detrimental role in the health and wellness of low-income communities is the toxic environment in which they live, work, and go to school.
People residing in poorer neighborhoods are exponentially more likely to be exposed to pollutants and chemicals from industrial plants, landfills, toxic waste facilities, manufacturing mills, and other environmental hazards. Low-income children — who already suffer from significantly higher rates of iron deficiency, stunted growth, obesity, and injury — are inimitably susceptible to ecological factors.
Poor kids, especially those of color are much more likely to develop severe asthma and lead poisoning, as well as food and other allergies. Poverty is perhaps the greatest public health crisis that America faces today.
Unfortunately, the physical effects of poverty only seem to be getting worse. A 2016 study from MIT’s Department of Economics reveals that the life expectancy gap between rich and poor continues to increase drastically among both men and women.
It is troubling to me that more of our leaders and institutions do not see poverty and its effects on their fellow citizens as the calamity that it is. It is not only a public health disaster, but also an issue of human rights. And, I am not sure that anyone could capture the particular gravity of this issue better than the Canadian public health crusader Dr. Charles Hastings.
In 1918, during his address to the American Public Health Association, Hastings proclaimed, “Every nation that permits people to remain under the fetters of preventable disease, and permits social conditions to exist that make it impossible for them to be properly fed, clothed and housed, so as to maintain a high degree of resistance and physical fitness, and that endorses a wage that does not afford sufficient revenue for the home, a revenue that will make possible the development of a sound mind and body, is trampling a primary principle of democracy.”
The world may be a different place 100 years later, but some things always remain true.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104