Skip to main content
Updated date:

Poverty Kills More People Every Year in the U.S. Than Heart Disease or Cancer

Author:

Ms. Clark hopes to help bring better understanding and an end to hurtful, downright wrong stereotypes about poverty and homelessness.

This article will take a deeper look at poverty in America, including its many causes and the various misconceptions about why it affects so many people and what it's actually like to live below the poverty line in the U.S.

This article will take a deeper look at poverty in America, including its many causes and the various misconceptions about why it affects so many people and what it's actually like to live below the poverty line in the U.S.

874,000 People Died From Poverty in 2011

Personally, I find it shocking and abhorrent that so many people are dying of poverty in this, the richest nation on the planet.

Research funded by the National Institutes of Health has been looking at the part social ills play in causing and/or contributing to death. ScienceDaily reports that recent analysis of these studies found that about 4.5% of all deaths in the United States are caused by poverty-related deficiencies, and that poverty is a contributing factor in still more deaths.

Deaths of all causes surpassed 2.5 million in 2011, the most recent period for which some statistics are available. That means more than 874,000 people died from poverty-related issues in that year (Columbia University). That same year, just fewer than 598,000 deaths were attributed to all types of heart disease. Cancer deaths for 2011 came to fewer than 575,000. Clearly, poverty kills more than either of these top killers (cancer and heart disease).

The figure on deaths (874,000) was obtained from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health website by adding all the figures for deaths caused by poverty-related ills in 2011. It was not an issue of doing the math, for anyone reading this and thinking along those lines (see reference in the reference section).

WebMD states: “Closing the education-socioeconomic gap would have prevented about 60,000 premature cancer deaths in 2007 alone in people ages 25-64.” There were even more cancer deaths in 2011 and, as previously stated, poverty-related issues contributed to those deaths.

WebMD went on to say that the death rate from cancer among the less-educated (those without a high school diploma) is about 2.6% higher than it is among the better-educated—people with a high school diploma or above.

Some Quick Statistics on Poverty in the U.S.

  • College graduates live an average of five years longer than people with no high school diploma.
  • People with the highest incomes live an average of six and a half years longer than people with the lowest incomes.
  • The mortality rate for African-American babies in the U.S. is double that of white babies.
  • More than 45,000 people die in the U.S. every year—that’s one every 12 minutes—because they have no access to healthcare, or because the healthcare they receive is substandard due to an inability to pay. Children make up 10,000 of those 45,000 deaths!
  • One in every six Americans is living below the poverty line.

Note: The statistics above come from the 2010 U.S. Census.

Thousands of people all over this country, including veterans of our military, are living in tent cities because there are no jobs.  This tent city is outside Reno, Nevada.

Thousands of people all over this country, including veterans of our military, are living in tent cities because there are no jobs. This tent city is outside Reno, Nevada.

One Reason Why You Should Care That Some Poor People Have No Access to Healthcare

People who want to deny necessary healthcare to poor people may want to think about the fact that these poor people are often the ones who are working in the kitchens of restaurants. They are the food servers. They are the people who clean the hotel/motel rooms and make the beds, etc.

Poor people do all those jobs that so many people depend on, maybe even cleaning their homes, washing their dishes, babysitting their children—and poor children are even attending school with the children of the better off and in close contact with them.

Here, I am referring to middle-class children when I say “the better off.” I am not speaking of the children of millionaires who can and often do send their children to exclusive private schools where they are insulated from children who are less well off and who may be sick with a communicable disease—and from pretty much all other misfortune in this world.

When Everyone Doesn't Have Easy and Guaranteed Access to Healthcare, Diseases Spread Faster

In every case, unhealthy people are infecting the things they touch, wherever that may be, when they have a communicable disease. They may be coughing or sneezing and, instead of a cold or flu, it may be tuberculosis. There is a superbug for TB that has been going around for a few years now.

Communicable diseases can be passed because people do not get the healthcare they need to cure or control the disease. By helping poverty-stricken people get the healthcare they need, people are also protecting themselves and their own families from disease and helping to prevent the spread of disease to the general population. Some of those diseases poor people are spreading are not always so easily cured.

Not all poor people are immigrants, so arresting them and sending them back where they came from is not the answer. In fact, most poor people are not immigrants. Currently, poverty often affects people who are unable to get employment because, despite the rosy outlook projected on every television news story and talk show, things really are not rosy for many, many people.

It was and remains a depression (not a recession) for many of the poor and underprivileged people in this country. Even people who are employed often cannot afford insurance or healthcare. Not making necessary healthcare available to all people in our society is unnecessarily putting every person, every child, and every family at risk for disease.

Poverty is a death sentence.

— Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator (Vermont)

What Are Some of the Social Factors That Contribute to Poverty?

Medscape News defines individual-level social factors and area-level social factors that lead to poverty as the following:

Read More From Soapboxie

“Individual-level social factors include education, poverty, health insurance status, employment status and job stress, social support, racism or discrimination, housing conditions and early childhood stressors.

Area-level social factors included area-level poverty, income inequality, deteriorating built environment, racial segregation, crime and violence, social capital and availability of open or green spaces.”

People who are living in poverty are more likely to die and to die sooner than the average person. An income of $11,138 a year or less for a single individual, or a combined income of $22,810 or less for a family of four, is below the poverty threshold. People in Alaska and Hawaii need to make more than stated here to stay above the poverty line, however, because the cost of living in those states is generally higher than the lower 48.

The above numbers are from 2010 when the last Census was taken (Wisegeek). Presumably everyone would need to make a little more than is stated here in order to stay above the poverty line, since we are well past 2010.

Lack of Education, Healthcare, and Decent Living Conditions Contribute to Premature Death

  • What researchers have found is that people who lack education and who do not have even a high school diploma are more likely to die, and to die sooner than average.
  • People without health insurance or the ability to pay for medical services are more likely to die, and to die sooner than average.
  • People who are unemployed, or who work in high-stress jobs or low pay, limited-hour jobs, are more likely to die, and to die sooner than average. People living in high-stress situations, because of unemployment or poor working conditions, fall into the same category.
  • People living in poor housing conditions, including apartments or homes in need of serious repair, people living in bad neighborhoods that may include risky or dangerous conditions due to other people (crime and violence), poor animal control, or pollution problems, and/or in a generally rundown neighborhood, are more likely to die, and to die sooner than average.
  • People who have no air conditioning, or people who have it but cannot afford to utilize it, are more susceptible to death not only from heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but also from allergies and asthma, heart disease, and other complications made worse by excessive heat.
  • According to the CDC, on average 675 people die every year in the U.S. as a result of excessive heat and no ability to control the heat or to get out of the heat for even an hour or so.
  • Another factor involves living in a generally poverty-stricken neighborhood (not just rundown, though the two often go together) with few or no green spaces (grass and trees). A little open space improves outlook and attitude, which in turn affects physical health.
Soup kitchens are busier than they've ever been because people are unable to find work and, when they do, it doesn't pay enough to cover ordinary bills. This soup kitchen is run by Big Hearts Ministries in Dallas, TX.

Soup kitchens are busier than they've ever been because people are unable to find work and, when they do, it doesn't pay enough to cover ordinary bills. This soup kitchen is run by Big Hearts Ministries in Dallas, TX.

Little or No Social Support Increase the Risk of Premature Death

People who have no social support—family or friends they can call on for help from time to time, or just to be connected—are more likely to die and to die sooner than average.

In fact, I learned in my Marital Adjustment class in psychology, that older people who lose a spouse and find themselves alone are likely to die within five years or less of losing their partner unless they make a new connection or bond with someone within six months of their spouse’s death. When I say a connection or bond, I do not mean a sexual connection or bond, though the relationship could include sex, it does not have to.

The important thing is to develop an emotional closeness with another person: someone to share day-to-day thoughts and activities with. It could be a son or daughter, a grandchild, a neighbor, a best friend, a sibling—someone with whom a person can have a close connection and feel useful and needed. It could also be a new spouse. It can be anyone who will give a person something to look forward to and a reason to get up in the morning. Pets can be helpful, but in reality, they do not replace human contact.

While anyone on any socioeconomic level may experience sudden isolation due to losing a spouse or a best friend, it is usually poor people, or newly poor people who have lost their livelihood, who are most at risk.

The important thing is to develop an emotional closeness with another person: someone to share day-to-day thoughts and activities with. It could be a son or daughter, a grandchild, a neighbor, a best friend, a sibling—someone with whom a person can have a close connection and feel useful and needed. It could also be a new spouse. It can be anyone who will give a person something to look forward to and a reason to get up in the morning.

Racism and Discrimination Contribute to Premature Death

Racism and discrimination are considered social ills that lower the ability of a person’s immune system to work as well as it could and should. When people are thwarted at every turn from succeeding because of some superficial reason, they often get discouraged and give up. The attitude that they are never going to succeed no matter what they do is very difficult to overcome.

Discrimination comes in many forms and every one of them is evil. Race and color are not the only reasons people are discriminated against. Being a woman, being overweight, not speaking English well, having an accent, wearing glasses, having a beard or long hair, being older (50+), and a variety of different things can cause a person to be discriminated against. Discrimination for superficial reasons that should be irrelevant is always wrong.

Living with and having to deal with discrimination and racism on a daily basis affects a person’s health and can shorten a person’s life just like any other bad stressor can do. Part of the reason for this is that people who are frequently discriminated against have trouble finding any employment, let alone stable employment. They may also experience discrimination in housing and at school.

According to the CDC, early childhood stressors that go beyond what is normal for babies and little children (generally referring to children under age five), such as physical, sexual, and even verbal abuse, “can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. In addition, childhood stress can lead to health problems later in life including alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.”

The Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota states:

“The research is overwhelming that living in poverty can damage children’s healthy development, educational progress, and prospects for the future.

Children who experience poverty are less likely to be healthy, both physically and mentally, less likely to gain the education they need to become productive in the workforce, more likely to become teen parents and more likely to become arrested and incarcerated. However, more than ten years of research shows that even small increases in family income can powerfully alter developmental trajectories, leading to a better child development outcome.”

A homeless family begs for food on a street somewhere in the richest nation on Earth.

A homeless family begs for food on a street somewhere in the richest nation on Earth.

Which States in the U.S. Have the Highest Poverty Levels?

Here are the 15 states that have the highest poverty rates in the United States, plus the District of Columbia. I have listed them starting with the poorest of the poor and ending with the best off out of the 15.

These statistics are from the U.S. 2010 Census and were updated in 2011 according to ACS (American Community Surveys). See references below in the reference section for more details.

  • Mississippi . . . . . . . . . . 22.6% poverty rate
  • New Mexico . . . . . . . . . 21.5% poverty rate
  • Louisiana . . . . . . . . . . . 20.4% poverty rate
  • Arkansas . . . . . . . . . . . 19.5% poverty rate
  • Kentucky . . . . . . . . . . . 19.1% poverty rate
  • Georgia . . . . . . . . . . . . 19.1% poverty rate
  • Alabama . . . . . . . . . . . .19.0% poverty rate
  • Arizona . . . . . . . . . . . . .19.0% poverty rate
  • South Carolina . . . . . . . 18.9% poverty rate
  • District of Columbia . . . .18.7% poverty rate
  • West Virginia . . . . . . . . .18.6% poverty rate
  • Texas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18.5% poverty rate
  • Tennessee . . . . . . . . . . .18.3% poverty rate
  • North Carolina . . . . . . . .17.9% poverty rate
  • Michigan . . . . . . . . . . . . 17.5% poverty rate
  • Oregon . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17.5% poverty rate

States With the Lowest Poverty Levels in the U.S.

  • New Hampshire . . . . . . . 8.8% poverty rate
  • Maryland . . . . . . . . . . . . .10.1% poverty rate
  • New Jersey . . . . . . . . . . .10.4% poverty rate
  • Alaska . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10.5% poverty rate
  • Connecticut . . . . . . . . . . .10.9% poverty rate

Mortality Rates: How Does the U.S. Stack Up?

The U.S. newborn mortality rate is higher than in 40 other developed countries, and even higher than in Malaysia, Cuba, or Poland! (ABC News)

The mortality rate on average for all persons (not just infants) in the following countries is lower than that for people living in the United States. The countries listed are in order of lowest to highest mortality rate. These statistics are from National Academies (see references below in the reference section).

  1. Japan
  2. Switzerland
  3. Australia
  4. Italy
  5. France
  6. Spain
  7. Canada
  8. Sweden
  9. Austria
  10. Norway
  11. Netherlands
  12. Germany
  13. Finland
  14. England (UK)
  15. Portugal
  16. Denmark

Finally, #17, the United States of America, the richest nation on Earth!

Is it not incredible that the so-called richest nation on Earth has more people living in poverty than 16 other countries that are not considered the richest nations on Earth? Many third world countries provide healthcare to all of their citizens, but not the richest nation on Earth.

How Does Poverty Cause or Contribute to Death?

Anyone who has ever been poor surely knows how stressful it is—worrying constantly how the bills will be paid, how necessary things like food, shelter, and medical care will be provided for themselves and their spouses and children. Many people have substandard housing and some have none at all. No roof and no door to lock against danger.

Often poor people go without healthcare. In addition to that, they pick up bad habits like alcoholism and/or drugs in order to numb the misery of poverty. Some pick up smoking in order to calm their nerves from the stress and worry.

Times are harder here in the U.S. than they have been in a long time as a result of the stagnant economy. While the wealthy would seem to be able to make money even when things are bad, poor people are not so fortunate.

There are more homeless people in the U.S. today than there was 25 years ago. I never saw a homeless person in my life until I was in my 20s. Now they are everywhere.

In fact, thanks to the market crash of 2008 and employers refusing to even consider people who are unemployed regardless of how long they’ve been unemployed (half a second or a year or more is the same to these employers), many middle-class people are now barely making ends meet. And some, far too many in this author’s estimation, have become homeless.

Poverty Exposes People to More Violence With Fewer Defenses and Less Support

Homeless can mean living with relatives or friends, living in a motel from day-to-day or week-to-week, living in a tent, living under a bridge, spending nights in a homeless shelter, or any number of other creative means to attempt to find shelter.

In the last few months, I have read about homeless people who were doused with gasoline and set on fire as they slept or sat quietly on city benches. Thankfully, this is not a common occurrence. But it does emphasize how homeless people have little if any control over what may happen to them, and they are constantly subject to random violence.

Homeless people experience violence far more often than people who do have homes with roofs and locks on doors and windows—homes that do include showers, toilets, and means of communication. People with homes usually have transportation as well in the way of a vehicle. Some homeless people may have access to public transportation, but not all of them do, either because it does not exist or because it costs too much for a person who has little or no money.

Being Poor Is a Punishment in Itself

There are at least 2,000 homeless children in the school district where I work. Mine is just one school district out of 14,000 across this country (2010 U.S. Census). Some of the homeless children, like nomads, move from one location to another every day, never staying long anywhere.

People with no stability in their lives, or constant stress to keep the meager things they have, are just naturally more susceptible to a variety of illnesses and maladies. They do not get check-ups or screenings. They have little if any healthcare at all, they may lack the ability to keep themselves clean, and they often have little contact with other people who might help. They often have no close relationships with anyone. Very often when tough times arrive, family and fair-weather friends disappear.

So many of the things that most people take for granted are not available to poor and/or homeless people. It should not be surprising that all these things affect mortality.

Being poor is in itself a punishment, yet so many people do not seem to realize that and so they pile on. Some people seem to want to make damned certain any poor person regrets ever being poor. Their purpose seems to be to make poor people sorry they were ever born.

Newsflash: Many poor people already rue the day they were born into this world. So if you cannot help, at least do not make matters worse for these people who are already suffering. If you have never been truly poor, then you do not know how miserable poverty can be.

Many Homeless People Have Jobs, But It's Not Enough to Lift Them Out of Poverty

Some people who are homeless actually have jobs, but those jobs do not pay enough to cover rent or utility bills or car payments. Wal-Mart is notorious for paying poverty-level wages and asking taxpayers to subsidize their billion-dollar business by having their employees sign up for food stamps and Medicaid.

Why are taxpayers angry at poor people instead of focusing their anger where it belongs: on big billion-dollar businesses that are purposely paying low wages so that taxpayers can help pay their business expenses.

Yet taxpayers are paying police to steal from these poor people who already have all but nothing and destroy what they take. Since when is it acceptable to kick people who are down?

The War on the Poor

More and more cities are cracking down on charities and going after volunteers who feed the homeless. They want the homeless to go away (die?).

Feeding the homeless is banned in many cities across the U.S.

It is against the law to be poor in many cities and a homeless person can be arrested and jailed if they are discovered. Apparently, some city leaders believe an arrest and incarceration record is helpful in finding a job.

Police "Sweeps" Destroy Homeless People's Possessions and Livelihoods

Police frequently and randomly "sweep" tent cities because no one wants them in their neighborhood. Sometimes the homeless people have a few minutes or a few hours warning, but what good is that if they have nowhere to go?

What happens is that police confiscate everything, every possession these people have, and destroy them or throw them into landfills. These people have nowhere to go, and it has been hard for them to glean the little they have. Yet taxpayers are paying police to steal from these poor people who already have all but nothing and destroy what they take. Since when is it acceptable to kick people who are down?

Why All the Fuss Over Poor People?

According to the CDC, 1.4 million people were arrested in 2010 for DUI (driving under the influence) of alcohol and/or narcotics. Alcohol was involved with 10,228 traffic deaths, which is approximately one-third of all traffic deaths.

Drugs were involved in 18% of all traffic deaths. 30 people die every day in the U.S. in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Alcohol-related accidents cost over $51 billion in 2010.

Clare Kim writing on MSNBC for Lawrence O’Donnel’s “The Last Word,” reports that a total of 31,672 people died as a result of firearms in 2010. That includes suicides, homicides, and accidental deaths. That is more than 86 deaths from firearms every day, and of course some of those deaths are children.

A lot of people are very passionate and active about controlling mood-altering substances, removing drivers from the road who do not drive safely, and regulating firearms. Yet all these things combined do not kill as many people in a year’s time as poverty.

Why are more people not as upset and passionate about ending a problem that kills so many people every year as poverty kills? 874,000 deaths (2011) from poverty is a huge number of people, yet few seem to care. Many of the people included in this number are children.

Some people say they want an end to Medicaid and food stamps, which would cause even more deaths. Some people even want Medicare and Social Security eliminated, which would cause still more deaths. Are we a nation obsessed with increasing the death rate of other people? Are we so selfish and heartless? Sadly, the answer seems to be yes.

Why are most people uncaring about the thousands upon thousands of deaths (including children) from poverty? But for the grace of God, any one of us might find ourselves among the poverty stricken.

References

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 C E Clark

Related Articles