Being poor can kill you. Below are just a few of the ways poverty kills. Poorer food options, decreased access to good healthcare and education, mental health risks, poorer housing, lifestyle and employment options all contribute to the list.
The problems of poverty can’t be separated into neat sections, but instead they interact with one another, causing other, deeper problems. For instance, poverty might lead to poor food choices, which leads to obesity, which leads to multiple diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Decreased access to good healthcare can worsen these problems, adding depression and mental illness to the pile and worsening the poverty. These cycles of ever worsening problems don’t stop with one generation. Instead they’re passed from generation to generation, complicated by reduced access to good education.
People who eat diets rich in vegetables and fruits and low in fatty meats live longer, but poor people may have a harder time eating healthy.
Fish used to be a poverty food. In the 1920s and 30s, fish was less expensive than chicken, and was something people ate if they couldn’t afford “real” meat. Salmon, tuna, cod, shellfish, lobster and crabs were all considered little more than garbage foods. Paradoxically, these are also among the leanest and healthiest animal products. Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, long considered essential for good cardiovascular health.
Things have changed. Wild caught salmon now averages $16 a pound. Lobster is $13 a pound. Maryland crabs will set you back $189.50 per dozen. The reason for the run up in fish prices in recent years may be that more people developed a taste for fish or that more people learned it was healthy or a combination of both. Either way, the demand for fish skyrocketed and the prices rose with it. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s if you were poor, at least you were probably eating healthy. That’s not so anymore.
Fish isn’t the only healthy food that’s been priced out of the poor person’s range. Prices on fresh vegetables and fruits have climbed 41% to 46% since 1978 alone. Choosing the organic versions of these foods is something most people living under the poverty line just can’t do.
By contrast, the prices for unhealthy foods like soda, cookies, beer and processed foods have all remained constant or have even fallen in some cases. The combined result of the boost in prices for healthy foods and the drop in prices for unhealthy ones is that poor people get the short end of the stick nutritionally.
Poor people may have less access to good healthcare, increasing their death risk.
The Affordable Care Act has increased the percentage of Americans with health insurance from 82% to 87%. Even so, there are still an estimated 30 million uninsured Americans who can’t afford coverage. Poor people are often on Medicaid or uninsured. They’re more likely to use emergency rooms as their first choice for medical care, and less likely to have a family doctor or primary care provider. They may also put off treatment for fear of the bill, resulting in worsened conditions that are more difficult and more expensive to treat.
Common infections like Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) and treatable cancers like skin cancer and prostate cancer can easily become fatal if left untreated. Yet someone under the poverty line who notices a growing mole that’s changed color or experiences swelling and redness after a cut on the finger may put off treatment until it’s too late. Treatable illnesses like diabetes, asthma and even periodontal disease can have long term or even fatal effects if ignored.
In fact, research suggests that poverty does kill, and in a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, scientists linked over 130,000 deaths per year to living below the poverty line. That’s almost as many deaths as those caused annually by lung cancer. With decreased access to healthy foods compounding the problem, higher death rates in the poorer segment of the population shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Poor people are more likely to suffer from mental illness, and the mentally ill are more likely to die.
According to the National Institute of Mental health, the mentally ill die on average ten years earlier than mentally healthy people. The vast majority of people with mental health problems live in poverty. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. More people drown after eating ice cream, but that doesn’t mean ice cream causes drowning. It means instead that both ice cream and drownings share a common factor: warm weather. Still, it’s not hard to see how poverty and mental illness could be linked. It doesn’t take much of an imaginational stretch to see that poverty can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. These problems can lead to trouble sleeping, eating disorders, and mental health conditions, which then make it even harder to climb up out of poverty. Components of the vicious cycle of poverty and mental illness include:
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty with problem solving
- Decreased access to mental health care
Mentally ill people in good economic situations can pay for good psychiatric care or be hospitalized. Poor people with mental illness may end up a county jail or eventually commit suicide. Interestingly, according to the National Library of Medicine, several high quality studies haven’t found a clear link between poverty and suicide. However on an individual basis, there’s no denying that feelings of stress and anxiety associated with financial hardship can factor into the decision to take one’s own life.
The damaging mental health affects of poverty don’t just hurt adults. Children who grow up poor are more likely to be homeless, depressed and mentally ill. Impoverished parents generally have harsher parenting behaviors. All these things mean bad outcomes for poor children, repeating the cycle of poverty and adding to the reasons poverty kills.
Poor people are generally less educated, and less educated people die younger.
High school dropouts between the ages of 25 and 65 are twice as likely to die as those with at least some college schooling. Education also lowers the risk of heart disease.
Poor people have less opportunity to complete an education than those living in better economic situations. Not only do poor people have a harder time getting educated, but a lack of education leads to more poverty. This creates a vicious cycle where the poor don’t get educated and the uneducated stay poor – and raise poor and uneducated children.
Here’s a list of facts about poverty, education and death:
- Each year of education increases life expectancy by six months.
- The poorest states in the U.S. have the least college graduates.
- Low income students are seven times more likely to drop out of high school or college than those from higher-income families.
- 31% of adults without a high school diploma live in poverty.
- Impoverished children are 1.3 times more likely to have learning disabilities.
- Less than half of all students from the bottom 25% of incomes graduate from college.
5. Location, Location, Location
A side-by-side comparison of poverty and death data shows those who live in the poorest areas of the country have a higher risk of dying.
Cleveland Ohio, Detroit Michigan and Newark New Jersey are on the list of cities with the top ten highest murder rates in the United States. These three cities are on another top ten list as well: cities with the highest poverty rates. 30.4% of Newark’s residents are considered low income, while 36.1% of Cleveland’s population is low income and Detroit’s low income segment is a staggering 42.3%.
Beyond murder rates, poorer areas with lower tax bases may have less money to spend on basic services. Richer areas may have nicer schools and attract better teachers. They may have more money to spend on public recreation areas like community pools and gyms. Richer areas may have better supermarkets and housing, better access to a wider selection of healthy foods.
Impoverished areas may have more health hazards. Poorer states have a higher percentage of their populations addicted to smoking. They also have the loosest environmental regulations and the worst histories of environmental problems. The poorest states all generate more toxic waste than other states in the country. Louisiana, for example, produces 3.8 million tons of toxic waste per year. Compare that to wealthier Vermont with an annual 1,500 tons of toxic waste.
Impoverished people may be more likely to seek riskier jobs. The United States has 83,000 coal miners, most of them in the poorest states in the country. Coal mining is a notoriously dangerous job, having more than double the illness, injury and death rate of the rest of private industry.
Other jobs among the most dangerous to the employee’s health include garbage collection, oil and gas industry jobs, boiler operation, wastewater treatment operation, and sanitation employees public custodians.
Those with low income jobs may be exposed to more on the job hazards from toxic and biotoxic materials. They may face more respiratory hazards and higher accident danger. Low income employees also have a 60% to 70% higher chance of dying from a stroke.
Poor people may be forced into cheaper housing choices with more health hazards and a higher chance of dying.
Less expensive housing is more apt to have structural and other problems. Mold, asbestos and water damage from leaking roofs are all expensive problems to fix. Impoverished homeowners may choose to live with the problems rather than fixing them.
Mold remediation can run into costs of $30,000 or more. Removing hazards like lead paint or asbestos from older, cheaper homes can often cost more than the homeowner can afford. Asbestos remediation, which requires protective clothing and pricey HEPA filtration systems, can also cost tens of thousands of dollars to complete.
Diseases like mesothelioma from long term asbestos inhalation and asthma or even lung cancer from long term black mold spore inhalation are just a few ways low income housing can kill.
Lack of exercise, obesity and drug use are all big killers, and poor people tend to be more sedentary and suffer more from obesity and drug and alcohol abuse..
According to the American Diabetes Association, areas with poverty rates in excess of 35% have 150% higher obesity rates. People with incomes below $15,000 are three times as likely to live a sedentary lifestyle. Research suggests a strong link between poverty and drug abuse.
Once lower income people do get into trouble with poor lifestyle choices, the options for them to correct the problems are limited. Obese people with access to good healthcare and treatment can avoid or manage diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. Drug abusers with higher incomes have access to better rehab options. Meanwhile, the public health services that lower income addicts and abusers must turn to are often full to capacity, causing long waits for treatment.
Even with drug and alcohol abuse, quality matters. Impoverished addicts often have to turn to lower grade, less pure drugs that carry more risk. The drugs they can afford may be toxic or cut with dangerous adulterants.
The Bottom Line
These are just a few of the ways being poor can kill you. Poverty tends to form a downward spiral which can include mental illness, poorer job options and more disease, all of which can perpetuate the others. Because the problems of poverty are intertwined and foster more problems, it’s hard to accurately estimate the magnitude of the number of deaths poverty causes each year.
- What’s Wrong With This Chart? – NY Times
- ObamaCare Enrollment Numbers – ObamaCareFacts.com
- 11 Facts About Education and Poverty in America – DoSomething.org
- Mortality and Mental Disorders – National Institute of Mental Health
- The Effects of Education on Health – National Bureau of Economic Research
- List of Lowest Income Places in the United States – Wikipedia
- Areas With Concentrated Poverty – U.S. Census Bureau
- Top 10 Most and Least Green U.S. States – DailyFinance.com
- The 15 Most Damaging Jobs – Business Insider
- Low Income Job Linked With Higher Stroke Mortality – Emergency Medicine News
- Poverty and Obesity in the U.S. – American Diabetes Association
- Low Income Populations and Physical Activity – BMS.com
- Poverty and Substance Abuse – AlcoholRehab.com