The Side Effects of Poverty
Poor people tend to get the worst of everything, so it’s very, very difficult for them to drag themselves out of poverty. In general, they have worse health outcomes, lower quality education services, and live in more crime-ridden and dysfunctional communities. With all that is stacked against them, poor people have a lower life expectancy than those in the middle and upper classes.
Poor nutrition goes hand-in-glove with poverty. Poor people can’t afford to buy a lot of pricey, protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy.
The San Francisco Chronicle points out why protein is important: “Kids’ brains need protein to function properly. A healthy diet including high quality sources of protein will allow your child’s brain to grow and develop. Learning occurs in the brain, but the brain also tells your body what do to, such as moving a muscle, breathing, and telling your heart to beat. All of these actions require protein.”
A 2011 study published in The British Medical Journal showed a link between a diet high in sugars, fats, and processed foods and lower IQ scores in children.
So, a poor child raised on a low-protein diet enters kindergarten lagging in brain development. Learning is more difficult, so kids from poor families tend to get squeezed out of academic streams that lead to university.
Farther down the road, that means low-skill, low-paying jobs and a continuation of the poverty cycle.
Political scientist Charles Murray is co-author of the 1996 book The Bell Curve that discusses the link between intelligence and wealth. He says in a podcast interview that “The Bell Curve sensitized me to the extent to which high IQ is pure luck. We live in a society that is tailor-made for high IQs and people who got the short end of the stick ... deserve our admiration and support if they do everything right.”
Low-income families substitute good-quality food such as fresh fruits and vegetables with cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling. So there’s high consumption of “packaged snack foods, frosted cakes with filling, cookies, and candies. Traditional fast foods such as cheeseburgers, fried chicken, and French fries, and bakery items such as doughnuts are famous for their energy density” (North Carolina State University).
Such foods take away the pangs of hunger but do little to provide the nutrients our bodies need. And, it’s not because poor people don’t know any better. Here’s The Conversation: “Contrary to popular belief, people who are experiencing food poverty are not ignorant of what they should eat as part of a healthy diet or even where to buy affordable food. There is a wealth of research showing that the most important factor for having a healthy diet is access to affordable healthy food.”
The Wealthier Are Healthier
The World Health Organization says that poverty is the single most important factor causing poor health.
Reset.org is an organization that promotes sustainable development. It says that “Poverty and disease are stuck in an ongoing, vicious relationship. One goes a long way towards intensifying the other with studies demonstrating that infection rates of certain diseases are highest in regions where poverty is rife.”
For the millions living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day) there is the ever-present threat of death by starvation. The United Nations estimates that 25,000 people die of hunger every day.
Dying from lack of food does happen in the developed world, but rarely. In rich countries obesity is the big killer, and this happens more among the poor than among those with money.
As already noted, poor people tend to eat more sugary, fatty, and energy-dense foods. These have the effect of causing people to gain weight. Being obese contributes to heart disease and diabetes. But, this isn’t the whole story.
Being poor in a rich country means having fewer choices about things that affect health. Lower-quality housing has a negative effect on health, so does overcrowding. Poor living conditions make mental health issues worse and cause people to turn to alcohol and drugs to lift their moods.
The Evidence Network notes that certain types of cancer “are higher among Canadians with lower incomes. Evidence has shown that some of this is associated with higher rates of smoking and obesity …” The group also quotes research that says wealthier people have better cancer treatment options than the poor.
The fact-checking group fullfact.org in the United Kingdom points out that poverty affects life expectancy: “Boys born in some of the poorest areas in the U.K. are expected to live nine years fewer than those in the very richest areas. For girls the figure is seven years.”
And, according to Canada Without Poverty, a McMaster University study, “found a 21-year difference in life expectancy between inhabitants of the poorest neighbourhood and those in the wealthiest neighbourhood in Hamilton, Ontario.”
Similar life expectancy gaps have been found in most Western industrialized countries.
Crime and Violence
Aristotle, the philosopher of ancient Greece, wrote that “Poverty is the parent of crime.” (That quote is attributed to several other people).
Swedish academic Amir Sariaslan has some evidence to support Aristotle’s statement 2,300 years later.
He and colleagues gathered data on half a million Scandinavian teenagers and their criminal behaviour. Writing about the study, The Economist noted (August 2014), “In Sweden the age of criminal responsibility is 15, so Mr. Sariaslan tracked his subjects from the dates of their 15th birthdays onwards, for an average of three-and-a-half years."
The findings were quite stark. Kids growing up in poor neighbourhoods "were seven times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes" than the same cohort from wealthy communities. With drug crimes the multiple was two times.
Other researchers say there is a genetic component to criminality, and that the genes associated with bad behaviour are found more frequently in those who live in poverty. The theory is that crime and poor attitudes lower the earning power of people.
And, Statistics Canada reports that “problems such as litter; people sleeping on the streets; loud parties; harassment and attacks motivated by racial intolerance; drug use and trafficking; loitering and vandalism were reported twice as often by the lowest income group compared to the highest income group.”
Poor people exist outside mainstream society, a condition philosopher Thomas Hobbes described in the 17th century as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
According to Our World in Data “In 1820 there were just under 1.1 billion people in the world, of which more than one billion lived in extreme poverty.”
As of 2015, 705.55 million people in the world out of a total population of 7.6 billion were living in extreme poverty, defined as having an income of less than $1.90 per day
The Social Gradient is explained by the World Health Organization: “If you look at under-five mortality rates by levels of household wealth you see that within countries the relation between socioeconomic level and health is graded. The poorest have the highest under-five mortality rates, and people in the second highest quintile of household wealth have higher mortality in their offspring than those in the highest quintile. This is the social gradient in health.”
- “The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Income.” Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, August 3, 2018.
- “Diseases and the Links to Poverty.” Reset.org, undated.
- “Role of Protein in Brain Function for Kids.” San Francisco Chronicle, undated.
- “Energy Dense Foods.” Rutherford County Center, NCSU, August 2017.
- “Poor Diet Is the Result of Poverty Not Lack of Education.” Lynne Kennedy, The Conversation, May 6, 2014.
- “Poor Childhood Diet Linked to Low IQ, Study Suggests.” Nathan Grey, Food Navigator.com, February 8, 2011.
- “Backgrounder: The Impact of Poverty on Health.” Carolyn Shimmin, The Evidence Network, undated.
- “Life Expectancy and Poverty.” Fullfact.org, July 18, 2016.
- “To Have and Have Not.” The Economist, August 21, 2014.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Rupert Taylor