Poor Health Outcomes Associated with Low SES Status; How Poverty Can Be a Determinant of Health

poverty-1005431_960_720Written by: Shawna Amini

On Halloween night, I met a little girl trick-or-treating around my neighborhood. Her father works for my parent’s business, so I am aware that this girl and her family lives in poverty. She wore a torn hand-me-down costume, but sported a blissful smile nonetheless. When I came outside, candy in hand, I saw her standing in my driveway, looking at my house in adoration. She then turned to me and said, “Wow, you have really big house.” While my home may have seemed big to her, I do not live in a large house. It can feel crowded with 5 people living in a four bedroom and two bathroom home. Yet, this girl believed that my house was “really big”. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her, the socioeconomic status of her family and how this will affect her life.

According to UNICEF, hundreds of millions of people around the globe are living in extreme poverty. As a public health professional, it is disconcerting that low socioeconomic status plays a role in poor health. Both poverty and poor health are linked and can be the result of social, political, and economic injustices. The linkage is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle where poverty causes poor health and poor health keeps communities in poverty. This cycle is difficult to break, but the consequences are extreme. Something must be done.

Those that are economically deprived and living in poor environments are faced with many stressors in their daily lives. Most struggle to make ends meet, they have fewer opportunities than their higher-up economic counterparts, they are unemployed or working in low-paying jobs, and they are also potentially dealing with marital issues or financial loss. They are often discriminated against and may feel isolated and powerless. With all of these issues weighing on them, many may turn to harmful behaviors such as overeating, smoking, and drinking excessively to cope with their situations. Single mothers may end up with the majority of childrearing duties, causing them to abandon potential educational opportunities that may enrich their lives.

Individuals living in poverty have an increased chance of becoming ill due to nutritional factors, lack of clean water, overcrowding, lack of education, and lack of access to healthcare. Low-income families are often largely exposed to advertisements for foods with low nutritional quality and often times live in unsanitary environments, which promotes illnesses. Children within these communities often have higher rates of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases. Families often go without doctors’ visits and medications due to the fact that they are unable to take off from work or cannot afford life-saving medications. Those in poverty are forced to choose between paying for housing, electricity, and feeding their children or paying for medications. This results in further illness or death, placing even greater financial burdens on the families. As I mentioned, due to the fact that many individuals in low-income areas give up educational opportunities to help out with finances, many are not given the opportunity to leave their communities to better their lives. Again, something must be done.

We all, as public health professionals, need to come together and aid those with low socioeconomic status in communities that are the most vulnerable to disease. We must target the neighborhoods and find ways to intervene and volunteer. Additionally, we need to push policy-makers to address the issue of poverty as a determinant of health. Those at Health Poverty Action said it best, “The economic and political structures which sustain poverty and discrimination need to be transformed in order for poverty and poor health to be tackled.”

Edited by: Casey Parker

Shawna Amini is currently a first-year Master of Public Health Candidate at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions concentrating in Environmental Health.