What To Do About America’s Growing Health Gap

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Advertisements and marketing lead Americans to believe that health disparities are the result of individual behaviors and lifestyle choices. People often make assumptions about health outcomes by looking at whether or not a person smokes, eats organic food and how much they exercise. While these behaviors do affect health, there are more useful classifications which more accurately determine health outcomes in America.  As the income gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us continues to widen, it is more pragmatic to classify and examine our socioeconomic differences instead of arguing over whether or not Americans should drink soda in cups larger than 16 ounces.

The Cycle

There is a cycle of cumulative disadvantage, beginning in early childhood, the effects of which continue throughout a person’s life.

  1. Children of lower income families are sometimes exposed to pollution and toxicity from substandard housing, which often instigate the onset of chronic illnesses such as asthma.

  2. They might end up in poorly-paid positions, with little control and demanding working conditions, causing even more health problems. This then affects their children and the next generation.

  3. The consequences of strong or weak foundations in early childhood are not temporary; they accumulate over the course of time and can manifest themselves as disease and inferior health.

The richest Americans have access to better early childhood education and have more opportunities to live healthier lifestyles. It too simplistic to classify people by whether or not they exercise, without looking at the larger picture of income inequality and how this affects the health throughout the lifespan.

Is Stress A Factor?

Chronic stress compromises immune functioning, causing greater vulnerability to disease. There are a number of social circumstances that bring about chronic stress, a disproportionate amount of which rest on the shoulders of the lower classes. Living in unsafe communities, often having to work two or more jobs with a great deal of job insecurity, it is not surprising that low socioeconomic status comes with stress. Social policies could be changed to improve this; for instance, if part-time workers were guaranteed paid sick and maternity leave, and paid vacation time. It is a common argument that high paid executives also experience prolonged stress and that this can affect their health as well. However, while high paid executives may suffer from high blood pressure, they can also afford the best doctors and medications to treat their stress-induced conditions.

What About Exercise?

It is often asserted that eating healthier foods and exercising is a choice anyone can make regardless of their circumstances. However, income and geographic location determine whether you are near places where you can exercise, and whether or not it’s even safe to go out in the first place. Furthermore, poorer areas have fewer grocery stores, little or no access to fresh produce, and have more liquor stores and fast food franchises. It is clear that without organized efforts, the unequal access to resources essential to good health will not be improved.

What To Do

Eliminating health inequality in America is possible. We need to target specific life stages such as early childhood, in order to make sure future generations lead healthier more productive lives. This can be accomplished through reforms such as:

  • Universal pre-school
  • Higher minimum wage
  • Paid sick and vacation leave for part-time workers
  • Equal access to quality education

While people are not wrong in assuming that our personal choices do affect our health, it is more informative to classify people by social conditions such as the schools they attend, the money they earn, and the neighborhoods they live in. By narrowing the extreme gaps between the rich and poor, we would be able to ensure happier healthier existences for all Americans.

For more information please watch the acclaimed PBS documentary series, Unnatural Causes

Author: Meredith Klein

Meredith is a lover of smoothies and all things psychological. She regularly contributes articles and also lovingly designed the Mindbody Blender logo and website.

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