Does “Poverty Cause Bad Health” or Does “Bad Health Cause Poverty”?
If you win the lottery you become more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American. Nearly one-third of all lottery winners will eventually declare bankruptcy. The obvious, but often overlooked, the reason for this phenomenon is that bad health causes poverty.
Yes, it is true that living in poverty can cause adverse physical health outcomes. Lack of access to healthcare, poor nutrition, and increased stress levels often cause the poor to become sick. However “health” is a large and multifactorial concept that includes your entire being, not just your physical body.
Relational health is your need to be connected to and authentic with others. Existential health is your sense of meaning and purpose in life. Mental health is your ability to be alert, focused, competent, and thoughtful. Emotional health is your ability to experience a full range of emotions and express them appropriately. Environmental health is knowing that your everyday surroundings support your well-being. All of these aspects matter and are interrelated and inseparable.
A breakdown in any aspect can quickly lead a person into poverty. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2019 found that 66.5% of bankruptcies in the U.S. were due to medical issues like being unable to pay high bills or time lost from work. Many of these medical issues are breakdowns in physical health, but many are caused by breakdowns in other aspects of total health. Poor mental or environmental health can lead to accidents that require emergency room visits. Poor emotional or existential health can lead to disorders such as major depressive disorder which can force someone to miss large amounts of work or to lose their job.
Poor relational health holds a special place. People who lack healthy relationships are easily taken advantage of by others who don’t have their best interests in mind. We are all familiar with stories of people who made millions in sports or entertainment just to squander it all with the help of “managers” or “friends.”
Poor health not only causes poverty but can also trap people there. While any aspect of poor health is a major barrier, environmental health deserves special attention. It is very possibly the most significant cause of poverty worldwide. While there are some bad places in America there are environments on our planet that are so toxic that virtually no one can escape poverty. Places such as prison camps, common in North Korea, or civil wars, such as the one currently raging in Yemen.
Understanding this relationship gives us the key to ending poverty. We can’t eliminate poverty by simply handing out physical resources and services, even in the form of improved nutrition and better access to healthcare. These only address part of the problem, but if we can find ways to improve the total health of all people in our world we can truly end poverty.
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