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Do You Want Fries With Your Poverty?

Income-equality gap tied to lack of access to healthy foods, poor health and even death

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The 2010 census, the once-a-decade benchmark used to determine everything from federal subsidies to mapping legislative districts, has unveiled an ever-growing income-equality gap. Even more startling is how the wage disparity relates to death rates.

According to new statistics, every additional $10,000 your family earns could decrease your chances of death by 16 percent. And with nearly 14 percent of Idahoans earning below the poverty level, caregivers and social workers consider indigence to be a matter of life and death.

"We know that poverty has an adverse affect on health," said State Community Services Coordinator Katy Kujawski of Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho.

Kujawski and her colleagues are particularly interested in a new study from countyhealthrankings.org, a project by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which recently ranked Ada County as ninth in the state in terms of overall health outcomes, but 42nd (dead last) in physical environment. Chief among the reasons was air pollution and lack of access to healthy foods.

In fact, half of all Ada County restaurants and 46 percent of all Idaho restaurants are considered fast food, compared to a national average of 25 percent.

The survey found that 5 percent of Ada County residents and 9 percent of all Idahoans have limited access to healthy foods, which is described as "residents who are low income and do not live close to a grocery store." That number is just above zero for the rest of the country.

"From the availability of affordable healthy foods, to the simple fact that many cannot afford preventive health care and end up in emergency room triage, poverty is the root cause of the inequities," said Kujawski.

The study also revealed that 45 out of every 1,000 Idaho Medicare patients that end up in a hospital bed are there for preventable reasons. Additionally, 19 percent of Idahoans are uninsured.

"What the uninsured tend to do is go to emergency rooms when they're at that stage instead of regularly seeing a doctor to manage their medications," said Christina Zamora, executive director of CAPAI. "And of course, the emergency room bill is huge and that drives further behavior of not going to the doctor because it takes so long to pay it off."

Rural Idaho has an even greater struggle.

"Rural areas struggle a little more because they are predominantly lower income and because access to transportation in relation to health care can really be an issue," said Zamora. "If a doctor is 50 miles away, that gas may be better spent going to Walgreens and getting something over the counter."

Hui Zheng, an Ohio State University sociology professor who conducted the study, cited many reasons for the disparity.

"The wealthiest people may push government for more services for themselves rather than invest in public goods like education or affordable medical services--services that can affect health for the majority of people," said Zheng.

Zamora thinks the new statistics should fuel political debates when Idaho voters go to the polls this November.

"I think that higher-income people tend to get their way more often," she said. "Lower-income people are just trying to survive and they don't have the time to support a candidate that would support their interests."

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