Abject Poverty Affects Health

Jan 6, 2012, 12:00 PM, Posted by Suzanne Gagnon

As we head into 2012, the Human Capital Blog asked Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) staff, program directors, scholars and grantees to share their New Year’s resolutions for our health care system, and what they think should be the priorities for action in the New Year. This post is by Suzanne Gagnon, CFNP, RWJF Nursing and Health Policy Fellow, RWJF Nursing and Health Policy Collaborative at the University of New Mexico.

I live, work and study in a state that has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. It is difficult for me as a nurse practitioner to focus my New Year’s resolution on the health care system. Yes there are health care system problems and complicated ones, but I cannot remove my gaze from the impact of abject poverty and its effects on health. Until New Mexico addresses its poverty, health care will continue to be a trailer indicator, not a primary factor for the state’s overall impact on quality of life.

I work at a School-Based Health Center in a low-income area high school in Albuquerque. I have many patients who have no other means of receiving health care due to immigration status or income-related constraints. I had a student last year who had just moved to New Mexico from another state and wondered why the amount of food stamp assistance he and his mother received was so little in comparison to his previous state. He says: “I’m so hungry all the time, I can never get enough to eat, we don’t have enough to last all month. Why is it like that here?”

We are failing our children and families in fundamental ways. I cannot supply that child with enough food by making changes in the health care system, but eventually the effects of his hunger and poverty will affect the health care system. Currently his poverty and hunger are making a huge impact on his ability to succeed as a student. Elizabeth Bradley and Lauren Taylor nailed this topic in their December 8, 2011 New York Times article, ‘To Fix Health, Help the Poor.’ They pointed out the differences between our country’s investment in health care versus social support. While we spend one dollar on health care and 90 cents on social services, other countries spend the same for health care but double that for social services. Investing in social services can do more to improve health than additional health care reforms.

A December 29, 2011 op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal by Angela Merkert and Wendy Wintermute, respectively the executive director and advocacy program director of Cuidando Los Ninos and A Home for Every Child, lists the staggering statistics that impact our state’s homeless population:

  • New Mexico is 45th of 50 states in prevalence and risk factors for child homelessness, including low family income levels, lack of affordable housing, and lack of access to health insurance.
  • More than 16,000 of our New Mexico children experienced homelessness last year; double the number from four years ago.
  • Here is the education connection: Fewer than 25 percent of homeless children graduate from high school. Children who do not complete high school are likely to become adults who have employment problems, lower health literacy, higher rates of illness, and earlier deaths than those who graduate from high school.

We’ve come full circle; let’s start with supporting children and families to live healthy lives through employment, affordable housing, access to healthy affordable foods, safe neighborhoods, and health care access—and can we please feed our hungry children?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.