This week, we’re exploring economic inequality and poverty here on TFD. To see the whole series, click here.
If I were to tell you that your yearly income has the power to determine your life expectancy, would you believe me? Well, it’s true. The lower your income, the more vulnerable you are of being diagnosed with a chronic disease that affects your health status. Individuals whose income falls below $12,140 yearly are at a greater risk of developing a life-long illness. Poverty collides with health every day. Socioeconomic status has become one of the most powerful tools of disease, injury, and mortality.
The deterioration towards poorer health begins in the womb. Mothers who live in poverty are prone to higher stress during pregnancy, hence are more likely to have children who are predisposed to develop chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. As the child grows, they can learn poor health behaviors and are more susceptible to mental illness, something that will be dealt with for the rest of their lives.
Poverty affects health by limiting proper access to nutrition, safe neighborhoods in which to learn, clean air and water, utilities, and safe homes to live in. Chronic diseases are responsible for 70 percent of deaths in the country, which is deeply rooted in poverty. Ten years ago, diabetes affected one in 11 Americans; now it affects one in four. Health behaviors and choices are driven on the context of where people live and their economic status. High stress in relation to poverty could lead to abuse of addictive substances such as smoking or heavy drinking, resulting in illnesses like cancer and respiratory conditions.
Living in poverty can create extreme stress. The constant release of cortisol could impact multiple organs or systems in the body. Cortisol shuts down functions that you don’t need in the moment of extreme stress, like reproduction or digestion. When you release cortisol every day, it can eventually take a toll on your body. If the stress mechanism is never turned off, the body begins to deteriorate –– resetting to a higher level, high heart rate, higher blood pleasure. The longer underprivileged individuals spend living in poverty, the longer the cortisol level is up, and the more it begins to affect the individual’s cardiovascular response to acute stressors. The effects are long-term, so if the individual manages to escape a life of poverty by means of education, the effects of poverty will be difficult to reverse.
We must not rule out that a diet and exercise routine plays a big role in determining a person’s health status, but underprivileged communities have limited access to healthy food options. Individuals who heavily rely on food stamps often have to patronize low-stocked stores that sell food high in sodium and empty in calories. Supermarkets, where they carry a bigger variety of foods, are often located in other distant communities, or healthy food is overpriced. Thus they have a higher rate of obesity, chronic diseases, and hypertension in lieu of healthy and fresh produce. It is a paradox — people living in poor conditions experience intense hunger, but obesity is at a high in impoverished areas.
It is a cynical cycle. Poverty leads to poor heath, and poor heath leads to poverty. Underprivileged individuals who are diagnosed with a chronic illness lack access to treatment. The reason for the delay of medical treatment? The uninsured rate among poor Americans is 26 percent, and with the recent Republican Health Care bill, the percentage could soon be much larger. Many choose to ignore or leave their illness untreated, and that can lead to long-lasting effects which can be difficult to reverse. Resources to the poor are severely cut, which places them in an environment of ongoing stress. With that being said, the negative circumstances don’t end there.
For those who are insured, medical costs, premiums, and copayments contribute to the financial burden of underprivileged people, who are sensitive to a nominal increase in medical out-of-pocket costs. Most individuals or families in need spend most of their income in basic necessities, such as food, housing, and utilities. To have savings is out of the question, as most Americans can’t financially afford a $500 emergency. These individuals often decide whether to pay for basic necessities or attend their doctors’ appointments or fulfill prescriptions, reducing access to necessary medical care. With the constant increases in plan’s premium payments, the burden increases stress — leading to negative health consequences that are more often unmet. Many families are faced with hash choices, knowingly putting their health at risk because they cannot see their children go hungry.
Let’s not forget that low-income individuals live in poorer regions with polluted water and air that can lead to chronic illnesses, where health services can be very limited, and they’d need to travel long distances to get access to health care. A lack of food, clean water, and sanitation can be fatal. The consequences are endless.
Ironically, underprivileged individuals are often referred to as those who rely on handouts. But the harsh truth is that they are constantly faced with many difficulties in improving their livelihoods, such as poverty-wage jobs. Many are determined people, wanting to improve their circumstances. With cuts to health care and unraised wages, those factors will continue to prevent them from breaking the cycle and improving their life.
It’s determined that poverty does not automatically seals the fate of an individual’s health status, although it can significantly influence it. Research shows that consuming healthy meals is an investment that significantly improves healthy outcomes and lowers health care costs. This distinction alone opens a door of opportunity for underprivileged individuals. Society as a whole plays a big role in intervening in the spread of poverty by expanding access to health care and promoting strategies to reduce poverty.
In the light of all the relevant circumstances, organizations like Ceres Community Project are committed to support low-income people struggling from a serious health challenge with free-low cost, home-delivered, organic meals while also offering nutrition education. Their program aims to reduce social isolation and leads to significant long-term changes in eating habits, resulting in fewer illnesses in the future. The inextricable link between poverty and health is both a cause and consequence, which are each deeply embedded in political and social injustice. In the 21st century, is not just about doing “the right thing to do,” but it’s essential to improve the health status of all people in achieving better outcomes by transforming health care and overcoming the obstacles of poverty. We do not need to work in isolation.
Based in Houston, Texas, Karen Reyes is a journalist, creative writer, and social media manager. She regularly covers the arts, digital culture, social politics and culture criticism. Her work has appeared in Just Vibe Houston and Water Journal. Karen is particularly interested in the relation to the digitalization of the art world.
Image via Unsplash