How Health Is Affected By Poverty

This article was written by Sarah Fudin, who works in community relations for the George Washington University School of Public Health on their Master of Public Health online program. She is passionate about working in an industry committed to making positive changes in the world. In her free time, Sarah enjoys running, reading and 16 Handles frozen yogurt.

Shanty Town in San Salvador, Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We are less than a month away from our next delegation, which will introduce about forty youth volunteers to various communities in rural El Salvador. As delegates anxiously begin to collect donations and prepare their suitcases, they can prepare by reading up about the issues that impact the communities they will reside in. As we addressed in our first blog post, “How Poverty Kills,” one of the major issues that impact rural Salvadorans is the lack of quality healthcare.

Approximately 1.2 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day. Poverty and ill health are bound together when people are forced to live in slums without decent shelter, good sanitation or clean water, all of which make people sick.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations said, “The biggest enemy of health in the developing world is poverty.” One need only consider the horrific images of Haiti in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 to see his point: Before the earthquake, Haiti was already considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with 70 percent of Haitians subsisting on $2 a day and 86 percent of the citizens of Port-au-Prince living in slums, half of them with no access to latrines and only one-third with access to tap water. After the earthquake, 1.5 million people were forced to live in makeshift camps, and more than 100,000 were considered at critical risk from the storms and flooding of the approaching rainy season. The crowded, unsanitary conditions led to a cholera outbreak in October 2010 that sickened more than 200,000, killing nearly 6,000 people.

Case Study: El Salvador

El Salvador is listed as the seventh of the 10 poorest countries in the western hemisphere, with a per capita income average of just over $600 per month. After the end of a civil war in the 1980s, El Salvador made strong progress toward peace and democracy. Structural reforms began to lead to strong economic performance, which subsequently began to reduce poverty levels between 1991 and 2001. Related social advances included reduced infant and maternal mortality, school enrollments increased, and there was better access to reproductive health and water services. However, the effects of the global financial crisis came home to roost in El Salvador, leading to an increase in the poverty rate from 35.5 percent to 42.3 percent in just a year, from 2007 to 2008.

Urbanization in El Salvador is intertwining the factors of poverty, violence and the health of its citizens. As in many developing countries, rural and poor people in El Salvador decide to relocate to the city for better opportunities. Problems develop when cities get overcrowded, the poor create squatting communities outside urban areas, and municipalities do not have the infrastructure to provide services to these new citizens. Living conditions become terrible: Homes in the slums are essentially huts made out of aluminum, plastic and cardboard; the only water source in these communities is often contaminated, and flooding in the rainy season is always a threat. Urban poverty in El Salvador currently stands at 56 percent.

Even so, the urban population in the hubs of San Salvador, San Miguel and Santa Ana continues to grow. It goes without saying that these slums are inherently unhealthy places to live. Traffic accidents and pollution account for alarmingly high numbers of deaths and illnesses. Unfortunately, as urban poverty grows, living conditions continue to deteriorate. Poverty, violence and health all interact in a toxic stew, where one of these factors cannot be remedied without addressing the other two as well.

Case Study: The United States

Compared to countries like Haiti and El Salvador, America is incredibly rich. However, 16 percent of Americans, or 50 million people, are poor, and 20 percent of American children now live in poverty. The rates of poverty, even among employed people, have spiked since the financial crisis. (The federal poverty level is $23,050 for a family of four.)

Recent studies have shown that poverty in this country is as bad for one’s health as in poorer countries, though the health problems are different. Depression, asthma and obesity are more common in American adults living in poverty. Nearly 31 percent of people living below the poverty line in 2011 said they had been diagnosed with depression at some point — almost twice the rate for those not living in poverty. Smoking is far more prevalent in adults in poverty (33 percent) than those not in poverty (19.9 percent), and the share of adults in poverty with asthma, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure is higher than the rate for those who are not living in poverty.

The per capita income in the United States was $46,760 in 2008 when the recession set in. By 2011, it had risen to $48,112; reflecting the vast wealth of the richest sector of the population. In all countries, wealthy people are more equipped to survive hard times, while the health and well-being of people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder are disproportionately affected by volatile climate conditions, harsh terrain, armed conflicts, natural disasters and economic crises. Thus, when speaking of health and poverty, we must address one to address the other.

International Partners is dedicated to empowering people on the front lines of poverty. All of our programs enable us to collaborate with communities who are seeking development opportunities and allow us to work with volunteers from the United States who learn from rural impoverished communities and thus help raise awareness and advocate for international assistance. Consider donating to International Partners today!

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