When we talk, as a nation, about health care, there are a lot of important aspects we must address. Women’s health care, for one, is vital to the country’s overall wellness. So is prevention and care of obesity-related illness. But a subject that gets discussed less frequency and with less sensitivity is that of the increased health risks of those living in poverty. The idea that, for millions of Americans, health care is simply too cost-prohibitive, seems completely over the heads of many lawmakers and pundits. And yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, it’s clear: Poverty just comes with more health risk factors and more chronic disease. And we need to talk about that, too.
As the poll shows, those living in poverty are more likely to suffer from treatable chronic illnesses, like depression, asthma, obesity, and diabetes. See for yourself:
The only two that seem not to follow the trend are high cholesterol and cancer, though there’s a very good possibility it’s because those diseases are more likely to go untreated in impoverished Americans.
Because while the ER may, as lawmakers have suggested, be a viable option for some who are uninsured and in situations of need, emergency care just doesn’t offer other services that are crucial to overall health and well-being. The ER isn’t the place to receive preventative or long-term care, like a physical or regular visits to treat diabetes. Or like quality mental health care, for example, which is nearly impossible to seek and receive without insurance.
Treatment for depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses require regular visits, a personal and trusting relationship with a doctor, and the ability to afford medication. Without insurance, many individuals living in poverty are unable to even find a doctor who will accept them–it’s often too great a liability, even for those that offer a “sliding scale”–let alone one where they can feel safe opening up and really receiving help. Government-funded mental health care is, when it’s even available, almost always a churn-and-burn situation, where patients are seen but not really listened to, and medicated without much information.
As a result, mental illness among those in poverty goes widely undiagnosed and untreated; Americans living in poverty are twice as likely to suffer from depression. And that’s just in adults. Children who grow up in poverty have higher risks of developing mental and physical ailments down the road, including ADHD, depression, and chronic illnesses, like obesity and diabetes.
But studies have shown that simply removing financial barriers isn’t enough to ensure that those who are living in poverty will have access to the mental health care they need. Instead, funding intervention services and quality mental health care has been found to be the most successful method–which is why “vouchers” for private practices, which are rarely located in impoverished neighborhoods, are a pretty unrealistic substitution for better, more accessible services in poor areas.
Chronic disease has also been shown to keep people in poverty. Battling mental and physical ailments, day in and day out without proper treatment, it’s difficult to elevate your social status, to move out of violent neighborhoods, to offer your children an enriching and nurturing experience. It is a cycle, and it’s not one that can be ended by cutting off necessary social services and hoping the poor will suddenly get healthy.
There’s been a lot of focus this election season on “the middle class.” But in focusing all of our discussions on policy, programs, and access on that single socioeconomic strata, we’re ignoring those who are the most in need. To make the United States a healthier, more vital nation, we have a lot of problems to fix–and the laziness of the poor isn’t one of them. But the health of the poor? That’s something we need to talk about.
Image by Flickr user psd