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How Income Inequality Affects Your Health

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There are many factors that can affect a person’s health. Genetics, environment, diet, and exercise can all be important elements that contribute to the overall health of a person. However, being poor, and thus unable to afford health insurance and medical care, can have the largest impact on health.

The cycle of poverty explains why poor people stay poor. Inherited poverty, subpar school systems, and fewer opportunities combine to create a situation that affects generation after generation. However, making the connections between poverty and poor health can be trickier.

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Poverty and Health Insurance Statistics

In 2017, the U.S. Census determined the poverty rate to be 12.3 percent, with 39.7 million people living in poverty. About 28.5 million people, or 8.8 percent of the population, did not have health insurance coverage for the entire 2017 calendar year. In total, 294.6 million people did have health insurance. While this is not a significant increase from 2016, it is a marked difference from 2013, where 41.8 million people were uninsured

The largest population of uninsured is also the poorest. In 2017, 13.9 percent of households with yearly income less than $25,000 were uninsured, a slight increase from the previous year. Only households with an income between $100,000 and $124,999 saw an increase in those insured from 2016 to 2017, and only by half of a percent. 

The highest percentage of uninsured in a state was in Texas, with 17.3 percent of the population uninsured. For comparison, the poverty rate in Texas in 2017 was 14.7 percent. Massachusetts had the lowest uninsured population, with only 2.8 percent uninsured. The poverty rate of Massachusetts was 10.5 percent. Four states, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia, had poverty rates of more than 18 percent. Uninsured rates were 8.4 percent, 12 percent, 9.1 percent, and 6.1 percent, respectively. 

Socioeconomic Status Effects on Health

To what degree does poverty actually influence health? The WHO outlines several factors that affect health, including a variety of circumstances and environmental factors, such as:

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  • Where people live
  • Their environment
  • Genetics
  • Income levels and social status
  • Education levels
  • Relationships with family, friends
  • Access to healthcare

How many of those can be affected by poverty? The amount of money a person or household has directly affects every item on the list except for genetics and relationships, though money can often have an indirect effect on relationships, as well. The WHO further broke out three factors that most contribute to health:

  1. Socio- and economic environment
  2. Physical environment
  3. Individual character and behavior

How many of those are affected by poverty? Socio- and economic environment and physical environment are obviously affected. Growing up poor and having the mindset of someone in poverty affects a person’s character and behavior. In other words, income level, more than any other factor, will have the greatest impact on your health.

Income and Social Status

Higher income and greater social status are both linked to better health. The greater the gap is between the rich and poor, the greater the difference in the health of those people. This can be seen in many facets in trying to stay healthy, such as diet or access to proper exercise resources. According to a story in the Washington Post, rich Americans eat significantly healthier than poor Americans.

Education

According to the WHO, low levels of education are directly related to poor health, including more stress. The education gap between rich and poor is growing wider than ever.

Physical Environment

The WHO defines the physical environment as including “safe water and clean air, healthy workplaces, safe houses” and others. There is an obvious correlation between levels of wealth and all of these factors.

Access to Healthcare

Do people have access to health services to treat and prevent disease? Low-level jobs don’t often come with health benefits, meaning many poor people are stuck paying out of pocket or foregoing care altogether. An ambulance ride without health insurance could result in thousands of dollars of debt.

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Healthcare practitioners can perhaps do a better job of identifying underserved populations. Unfortunately, with a problem this large, simply identifying isn’t going to be enough.

According to data gathered by the Kaiser Family Foundation, as reported by Bradley University, there are 6,600 communities in the U.S. that were identified as a health professional shortage area. Kaiser analysts noted that “poverty is the most common roadblock, especially for African American and Hispanic residents.”

The growth of suburban poverty in the U.S. is also adding to this problem. Economic changes are causing poverty to move from the inner cities out to the suburbs, creating a whole new demographic of poor people. In 2015, there were more poor people living in the suburbs than in the cities. Poverty in cities since 2000 rose 50 percent; poverty in the suburbs is up a staggering 139 percent since 2000.

Unfortunately, as the disease of poverty grows, so will the number of people affected by it. Even more unfortunate is how much socioeconomics will continue to impact the health of those living in poverty.

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Noah Rue
Noah Rue is a journalist and a digital nomad, fascinated with the intersection between global health, personal wellness, and modern technology. When he isn't frantically updating his news feeds, Noah likes to shut off his devices, head to the beach and read detective novels from the 1930s.

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