Poverty and Health More Than Half a Essay

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Poverty and Health

More than half a century ago, the World Health Organization defined health as "a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (Ustun & Jakob 2005)." There were objections to this definition and others were suggested to replace it. The Australian aboriginal people define health as something beyond individual physical well-being. Their definition encompasses the social, emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being of the whole community. The perception spans an entire life view and the cycle of life, death and an after-life (Ustun & Jakob).

On the other hand, poverty is defined as a threshold. In 2001, the Census Bureau set the poverty threshold at $9,214 for a single person or at $18,022 for a family of 1 adult and 3 related children below 18 years old (Oberg 2003). This definition or measurement of poverty is deemed limited at the present time (Benjamin 2003). It does not take into consideration many significant changes that have occurred since the 50s. These are the disproportionate family budget costs, expenses for childcare, cost of living across areas, changing policies over disposable income and changes in the overall standard of living in the U.S. By today's standards, families earning far above low poverty thresholds are still not considered financially comfortable (Benjamin). An expert panel from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences recommended revisions to the federal definition of poverty. They suggested the inclusion of actual costs for food, clothing and shelter; adjustments in geographic housing costs; incorporation of non-cash and tax-related benefits' and relevant changes. Income should instead be measured as a percentage of poverty. Examples are 150% and 200% of the poverty line. This method is already in use by many state and federal programs. Another way is to estimate the actual minimum cost of basic necessities and compare disposable income to total cost (Benjamin).

How Poverty Affects Health

Research suggests that poverty increases the risk of adverse conditions, such as poor health and crime (GAO 2011). These adverse conditions are seen as consequences of limited access to health care and the accompanying increased exposure to environmental hazards and risky behaviors. Greater access to health insurance among low-income mothers reduces infant mortality. Residing in urban areas increases exposure to high levels of air pollution. Risky behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol use, an inactive lifestyle, and poor nutrition, spell the difference between lower and upper income groups. Poverty also links to crime, especially when unemployment levels are high. Poor health can be both the cause and the result of poverty. These factors limit individual growth, the development of skills and abilities, the acquisition of knowledge and the formation of productive habits and practices (GAO).

Poverty and Social Inequality

The World Health Organization pointed to poverty as the single and "the greatest cause of suffering on earth (Murali and Oyebode 2004). Poverty and social inequality have direct and indirect deleterious effects on social, mental and physical well-being of a person. The two factors are interlinked. Income inequality creates psychosocial stress and eventually produces psychosocial stress. Psychosocial stress, in turn, leads to poor health and high mortality. Deprived communities suffer from a lack of social and physical infrastructure. They often suffer from poor health and poor health often leads to higher mortality for those in the lower socio-economic classes. The effects of social inequality extend to society itself. They create stress, frustration and breakdown of families. These conditions are the breeding grounds for crime, homicide and violence. Several adverse conditions inhere in poverty. The poor are exposed to perilous conditions and disadvantages. If employed, they perform routine, stressful, unproductive and de-personalizing work. They lack the necessities and amenities. For not being part of the mainstream of society, they have no easy access to information and support. Those in the lower socio-economic levels are more exposed to disease and risky behaviors. These behaviors, although often with harmful intents, are often for coping with stress and need. As a consequence, a life of want favors the continued increase in stressors and vulnerability to these stressors. Long-term social problems, which follow and cleave to poverty, include poor health and increased mortality, poor school performance, crime and substances abuse or misuse (Murali & Oyebode).


David Williams and his team at the University of Michigan found that those earning less than $10,000 annually have thrice the risk of dying than those earning more than $30,000 (Minkler 2003). Other studies made the same conclusion with the use other markers of low socio-economic status. And the Alameda County Study in California found that a poor neighborhood, regardless of income, had 40% risk of dying more than other communities for any factor, such as age, gender and health history. Other studies suggested that something in and about poverty is simply averse to good health (Minkler).

Chronic Deprivation

Richard Levins of Harvard University identified some forms of chronic deprivation (Minkler 2003). These are limited access to resources, such as food, housing and education; exposure to environmental toxins; threats and risks to physical health and safety; perilous jobs with high productivity expectation and low resources and rewards; and chronic psychological stress. Other scholars demonstrated that the adverse effects of poverty on health are greater in countries with a higher degree of income inequality. Being poor in these countries increases stress levels. These poor suffer from a lack of control over their lives and a lack in their society and surroundings. The wider the gap between the rich and the poor, the greater is the level of ill health in the poor (Minkler).

The progressively decreasing level of control over their life circumstances also explains why the poor stand a diminished chance at fighting disease and preventing disability, whatever their personal habits and behaviors (Minkler 2003). Racism is still another factor. Racial discrimination has been shown to induce heart disease, depression and other medical illnesses (Minkler).

Poverty and Social Exclusion

Social exclusion refers to a process rather than a state, such as poverty (Magrab 1998, Morgan 2007). As a concept, it is multidimensional but has vague economic, social, political and cultural interpretations. It is mainly characterized by a shift from individual responsibility to society and social institutions. The concept of social exclusion evolved from France. The term was coined by Rene Lenoir in 1974 in identifying primary vulnerable groups. These groups included the mentally and physically handicapped, the suicidal, aged invalids, abused children, drug addicts, delinquents, single parents, multi-problematic households and asocial individuals (Magrab, Morgan).


Poverty and social exclusion are the main causes of homelessness in developed

nations, like the U.S. And UK (Shinn 2010). Risk factors to homelessness include the breakdown of relationships, such as divorce and single parenthood, and national tax and social welfare policies. Patterns of social exclusion dictate what groups are at the greatest risk and welfare policies take it from there. The choices made by these policies can lead to high rates of homelessness to citizens (Shinn).

Exclusion takes four forms. The first is income. Housing capability is a joint function of housing costs and incomes (Shinn 2010). Those will lower incomes thus confront greater risks of homelessness. Surveys conducted in 1977 showed that the median income of Black families was only 55% of that of White families. Unemployment rate in 2008 was 10.1% for Blacks and only 5.2% for Whites. Black men earned only 75% of what White men earned who worked full time. Black women earned only 85% of what White women earned. The second form is the inability to accumulate wealth, Race is a strong factor in employment, housing and credit markets more than the distribution of income. This means that minority families have little to fall back on when they lose income or during a housing crisis. The lack of wealth produces the culture of poverty. Within this culture, children lack the motivation to bolt out of poverty when they grow up as adults. They have fewer resources to bank on in times of crisis. The third form is discrimination in housing. A dissimilarity index is used as measure. In 2000, 64% of African-Americans must move from heavily Black areas to less segregated locations in order to join distribution schemes as Whites. Dissimilarity was lower for Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders. And the poor who manage to afford or secure housing are also likely to fail in their payments of high-cost loans. Their property is soon foreclosed. This results in destabilization in the community and reduced property values. Studies found that those who experience homelessness often come from poor neighborhoods, which have fewer resources. And the fourth form is incarceration. The rate of imprisonment is 6.5 times higher for Black men and 3.8 in Black women than for Whites. Cross-national studies found that incarceration rates are higher for minority than for majority groups in every country. These minorities who suffer the highest crime and imprisonment rates also suffer from social, mental health and economic disadvantages. The difference in incarceration rates…[continue]

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