Americans in Poverty at Greater Risk for Chronic Health Problems

A new report from Gallup shows the relationship between illness, healthy habits, and economic status.

Homeless people line up in Franklin Park in downtown Washington to receive food and clothing, May 19, 2012.
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Poverty doesn't just mean trouble making ends meet and having few assets. According to data from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Americans in poverty are more likely to suffer from a variety of chronic health problems, both psychological and physical.

Of the illnesses tracked in a Gallup report on the data, depression has the greatest gap between those in poverty and not in poverty. Nearly 31 percent of adults who lived below the poverty line in 2011 said they had been diagnosed with depression at some point, almost twice as high as the rate for those not in poverty — 15.8 percent. The share of adults in poverty with asthma (17.1 percent) or obesity (31.8 percent) was also roughly 6 percentage points higher in each case than the share of adults not in poverty. The study also showed that diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks were slightly more likely to afflict those in poverty than those who are not.

"It was interesting to see that depression appears to disproportionately affect those in poverty more than other chronic conditions — and to see the extent of the difference," says Elizabeth Mendes, deputy managing editor at Gallup, in an email to U.S. News.

[READ: Middle Class Can't Afford Homes in Nearly Half of Major Metro Areas]

While that finding is striking, the Gallup report points out that the causal relationship between depression and poverty — not to mention the other diseases listed in the study — is complicated. Depression can be associated with other chronic illnesses, and depression can both lead to and result from poverty. In addition, outside factors could contribute to any of these problems.

One outside factor is health habits. Smoking was far more prevalent among adults in poverty, 33 percent of whom said they were smokers, compared to 19.9 percent of those not in poverty.

The differences for exercise and eating habits are much smaller. Just over half — 51.5 percent — of adults above the poverty line said that they exercise for at least 30 minutes, three or more days a week, compared to 48 percent for adults in poverty.

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Meanwhile, 56 percent of adults who are not in poverty said that they eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, four or more days a week — nearly 6 percentage points higher than the share of adults in poverty who said they did the same. However, the share who said that they ate healthy all day "yesterday" was virtually identical for both groups — around 65 percent.

That may point to differences in perceptions about what it means to be healthy, says Mendes.

"It is interesting that we find that those in poverty are just as likely as those who aren't to say they ate healthy, but are less likely to say they ate fruits and vegetables frequently. This may point to the two groups having different frameworks for what qualifies as healthy eating," she writes.

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But also contributing to lower produce consumption among the poor may simply be lower availability. Only 83.7 percent of those in poverty said it was "easy to get affordable fresh fruits and vegetables," compared to 91.7 percent of those not in poverty.

It's also important to remember, when looking at any data about poverty, that while poverty is a binary measure, income is not. That is, a person just barely above the poverty line and a person just barely below it likely have similar living situations, despite being classified in two different groups. All of which means that these data only begin to describe the health differences between people at varying points on the income distribution.

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  • Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter @titonka or via E-mail at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.