4 Ways That Poverty Hurts Americansí Long-Term Health

Written by Sy Mukherjee

Thereís a long list of reasons why poor Americans tend to be in poorer health than the more well-to-do. For instance, low-income people†donít usually live near hospitals and primary care doctors. And many canít afford expensive treatments, often because they work part-time jobs that donít offer health benefits and canít afford to buy private insurance.

But the health disparities between the rich and the poor arenít simply due to low-income Americansí lack of access to treatment. Poverty also cuts off vital resources to the poor and places them in an environment of ongoing stress ó and that has long-lasting effects on Americansí general wellness that can be difficult to reverse. Hereís how poverty negatively affects Americansí health over the long term:

1. Poverty prevents Americans from buying healthy food. This is one of the biggest contributors to poor health in low-income communities. Many of the poor, including those who rely on food stamps, have to patronize bodegas or mini-marts that sell salty snacks and the kinds of†processed foods that cause hypertension, obesity and diabetes in lieu of fresh produce. According to an Economic Research Service (ERS)†report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.5 million Americans are both poor and live in low-income areas over a mile away from a supermarket that offers healthier food variety. On average, food stamp beneficiaries live about†1.8 miles away from a grocery store. Without a vehicle or public transportation to help these Americans get to the market and carry their groceries back home, many opt for high-calorie and unhealthy food instead. So it isnít surprising that†regions where poor people canít get to supermarkets also have†higher recorded rates of obesity and diabetes.

2. Poor people are more likely to smoke. Research shows that smokers†tend to be lower-income and less educated Americans. But a new†study from Duke Medicine suggests that isnít a coincidence, and that those who grow up in poverty may actually be predisposed to picking up the unhealthy habit. Thatís a consequence of economic stresses that inhibit Americansí ability to self-regulate healthy behaviors. ďPoverty during childhood not only appears to affect child development, but can have lasting effects on the types of health choices made during adolescence and early adulthood, especially as it relates to cigarette smoking,Ē†wrote lead author Dr. Bernard Fuemmeler, an associate professor in Community and Family Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. ďEconomic strains may shape an individualís capacity for self-control by diminishing opportunities for self-regulation, or affecting important brain structures.Ē

3. The poor live in regions with worse air quality. The American Lung Association reports that low-income and minority Americans†live in areas with worse air quality. There isnít a single concrete reason for this, although researchers point to the fact that poor people are†more likely to live close to sources of pollution, like industrial plants that emit harmful particles. Unfortunately, certain low-income populations also suffer from medical problems that make air pollution even worse for their health. For instance, the elderly, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and people who live near a central city have far higher rates of†diabetes and†asthma ó both conditions that are exacerbated by bad air quality. Air pollution has also been linked to†kidney problems,†lower birth weights and†higher levels of infant mortality, and it†kills over 2.5 million people every year.

4. Economic insecurity has devastating consequences for both physical and mental health. Economic inequality takes a massive toll on mental health ó†even more so than warfare, by some accounts. In fact, new research has shown that the mental stress of being poor is a major reason that†low-income people are more likely to have high blood pressure, cholesterol and become obese or diabetic, since long-term stress creates hormones that compromise the immune system and promote weight gain. That trend towards poorer health actually begins in the womb, since mothers who are stressed during pregnancy are†more likely to have children who are predisposed to developing diabetes and obesity, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. Yale Universityís School of Medicine just released a new study finding that poor moms who donít have an adequate supply of diapers often end up depressed or suffering from other mental illness ó something which†can be passed on to their children and affect their school performance and general health. Even Americans who eventually escape a life of poverty†must deal with the long-term consequences and chronic conditions theyíve developed on their way out of it.

This post was originally published at ThinkProgress.

Photo from Thinkstock


Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener4 years ago


Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

People who grow up in poor household with over weight smokers think that is normal. Same with those who hate other types. It's not a matter of bad decisions, and if a bit of education is all it takes to correct this, then well off people, once they understand that poverty exists because not enough money reaches the bottom would stop saying things like all people have access to what ever but just keep choosing bad stuff.People with plenty of money don't understand how others can be with out money [well just barrow it, use a credit card, walk into any place and 'get a job' ]. They are just as corraled by what they're used to as poor people. Many don't even know that you can't buy pet food, personal care items, toilet paper or laundry supplies with them. They ALL need to experience each other's reality before they can truely make new choices.And understanding that new healthy choices depend on oportunities available and the ability to know how to make the most of them.Give a starving rich person a fishing pole and a worm and see if they know what to do with it, if there's no water near by.

Amanda S.
Amanda S4 years ago

I must disagree with one point in this article.
Person's receiving 'food stamps' are able to purchase any human food items that they wish. Plants and seeds are even eligible items!
Food stamp patrons choose to purchase unhealthy "garbage" foods at their own badly executed discretion. Why a bag of Skittles or Jelly Belly's qualify as "food" is unbelievable.
When a person who has lived in less-privileged conditions for a long time is finally afforded the ability to purchase healthier foods, they often fail to do so because they'll continue to purchase the same cheap, crappy, UN-nutrious food-stuff that they've grown accustomed to eating.
I believe that a 45 minute "healthy nutrition" informational video should be watched by these persons as a requirement - before benefits are awarded them.
Those recipients who are interested should also watch a video on how to grow ones own food and prepare it for eating.

Linda McKellar
Past Member 4 years ago

Well said Kevin. Redistribution of wealth IS being done in the US...from the poor to the rich! Ever try to buy nutritious food like protein sources or fresh veggies on a limited income? Sure I've seen many poor & those with assistance buy crap, cigs, etc. but that is a combo of stupidity on the part of some & a lack of education for others. Hamburger helper is cheaper than a T bone. There can also be an attitude of "who gives a shit" I'm just poor trash with no hope. Such an attitude can be generational & endemic when you see no light at the end of the tunnel except an oncoming train. Of course poverty effects health. The US system is abysmally inadequate. If you're poor you can't afford preventative health care so acute problems become chronic & thus both more severe & harder to manage. One chronic problem often causes others. Hell, they're only lazy, indolent poor slobs so why should anyone care. That attitude as prevalent amongst many US citizens is the reason a good percentage of your human potential is flushed down the crapper. I've got mine. Screw you. I know some Americans with exactly this attitude & they disgust me.

Nimue Pendragon
Nimue Michelle P4 years ago


Margaret Goodman
Margaret G4 years ago

I believe that every human being has made poor choices ("To err is human.") Those born into good circumstances have resources to cushion the impact of those poor choices. For those living in poverty a poor choice can be catastrophic.

And pregnancy is not necessarily a choice. It is a choice only when the woman is not pressured by her culture to have children and when contraception and abortion are legal, safe, affordable, and readily available. In general, when women are afforded what they need to control their reproduction, the birth rate drops.

Blaming women for having too many children is not a solution to poverty. Providing family planning is among the things that a society can do to lessen poverty..

Evan Jane Kriss
Evan Jane Kriss4 years ago

Our system is broken. These people, through no fault of their own, are often trapped in an endless cycle of poverty. They are not given a fair shake nor are they given the opportunity to escape. They are denied good education and good jobs. They are harassed or killed by the police. They see no way out. It makes me so angry. Racism and disdain for the poor are alive and well in this country. We'd like to think we Americans are all equal, but the reality says different. Until we address these problems properly ours will always be a society of haves and have nots.

Janet G.
Janet G4 years ago

The underlying causes of poverty are political as history unanimously proves. At each turn scapegoatists have blamed the people, but history does prove otherwise (yet still the blame game persists... or self justification for excessive consumption/hedonism).

B Jackson
BJ J4 years ago

There is much poverty in US so why all the campaigns to send money & supplies to other countries instead of helping our own people first?

Ana Marija R.
ANA MARIJA R4 years ago

Thank you for the article & some comments.