Poverty As a Disease: How Being Poor Affects Your Health

Feb 25, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest crisis to expose how being poor affects your health. With low-income communities adversely affected, it’s a grim reminder that poverty itself is a disease. As the country works to find a solution, the first step is understanding the various ways in which socioeconomic status impacts a person’s health.

The 2017 Census Bureau estimated that the poverty rate in the United State is around 12.3%. However, COVID-19 and the ensuing economic situation has likely caused the poverty rate to increase. Today, many individuals and families don’t have sufficient income to meet the basic needs required for healthy living. From inadequate access to healthcare and experiencing food insecurity to residing in sub-optimal housing, people living in poverty are at a higher risk for a host of health problems. In fact, experts acknowledge that socioeconomic status is the most powerful predictor of disease and mortality.

Taking into account your income, education, job prestige, and long-term wealth, your socioeconomic status reveals a lot about how long you will live and how healthy a life you can expect to lead. For people living it in poverty, it unfortunately predicts increased risk for illnesses such as chronic disease.

How exactly does being poor affect your health? After reading, you will understand why poverty is a disease.

Experiencing Food Insecurity

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Shaky nutrition and food insecurity affect a person’s health before they are even born. For years, experts have linked low income to lower birth weight. Babies who are born underweight are at a higher risk for a multitude of health problems. If the mother’s diet during pregnancy lacks the right nutrients, it affects the baby’s brain development and function.

For poor, expectant mothers, it’s difficult to maintain a healthy diet when pregnant. People living in poor neighborhoods may not have anywhere they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Even if they do, healthy food is generally expensive. To make their food budget stretch, many people opt for high-calorie, high-fat food which is usually the cheapest. Such a diet frequently leads to obesity.

Not knowing when you will eat your next meal or if it will be enough is a major source of stress for both adults and children living in poverty. This stressor with others contributes to a greater likelihood of inflammatory diseases. It also puts individuals living in poverty at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.   

Living in Suboptimal Housing

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Another source of stress for people living in poverty is their housing situation. Many low-income neighborhoods are also dangerous. People are sometimes forced to take up residence in overcrowded living situations or places without proper sanitation. Living in suboptimal housing causes stress that impacts multiple systems in the body.

Frequently, the places poor people are able to afford are old and ill-kept. Toxic infrastructures can severely impact an individual's health, often without them even realizing the cause. One example is the Flint, Michigan water crisis. When old infrastructure, such as plumbing pipes deteriorate, lead is released into the water supply.

Other consequences of suboptimal housing are the rapid spread of airborne diseases among people living in close quarters, increased air pollution due to a reliance on open fires and traditional stoves as well as inadequate access to green spaces for exercise and fresh air.

Lack of Access to Healthcare

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In addition to lacking access to green spaces, people living in poverty also lack access to healthcare. Rising costs make healthcare increasingly inaccessible for poor people. While there are some social programs to assist individuals, many people still don’t have adequate coverage. For some parents trying to manage a budget, they are forced to choose between filling a prescription for themselves or putting food on the table for their children.

As previously noted, these difficult choices join other stress-causing factors to impact a person’s health. People who live in poverty develop and sustain a heightened response to stress which increases the overall wear and tear on the body. An overproduction of cortisol can derail the endocrine system and put them at a lifelong risk for cardiovascular disease. Healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses must understand the role stress plays in the health of underserved communities.

Despite clearly needing access to healthcare, poor and vulnerable people often don’t have the money to cover the cost of doctors’ visits or a course of prescription medication. Even getting to an appointment is difficult, as many people living in poverty don’t have reliable transportation or childcare. Residents of poor, rural areas might need to travel a significant distance to see a doctor or a dentist. With limited access to things like dental care and other medical professionals, people have little choice but to ignore their health issues, even when facing small issues like cavities or other aches and pains.

Inadequate access to healthcare, suboptimal housing, and food insecurity all contribute to the link between a lower socioeconomic status and worse health. Without a doubt, being poor impacts your health. You can draw connections between an impoverished living situation and various diseases, but it’s clear that, in and of itself, poverty is a disease. 

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