Poverty kills. Let me count the ways.
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Such examination reveals two phenomena that tend to confound the preceding argument. One is that falling rates of infant mortality explain the majority of the total increase in lifespans. The other, and less known, is that adult longevity is in part a function of economic class.
This should come as no surprise: One need merely consider the parameters of life to understand why, as our society is structured, such a disparity is inevitable. Even allowing for the vagaries of individual traits and behaviors, here are five broad categories in which poverty shortens lives:
- Health care: If you can afford good health insurance, you will go to the best facilities and be treated by the best doctors; if you can’t, your medical care will come from an overworked junior physician, physician’s assistant or nurse-practitioner who has neither time nor inclination to study your condition and treat you appropriately.
- Stress/mental health: If you’re constantly worried about how you’re going to pay the rent, the utilities, and the grocery bill, and you know any sudden unexpected expenses — as for health care — can devastate your budget, you are undergoing persistent stress, whose life-shortening effects are widely documented. Stress and depression (sometimes suicidal) also follow the social contempt for the penurious prevalent in our society. Further, crime, noise and lack of privacy characterize the neighborhoods of the less affluent, further contributing to stress: Every day, for example, of listening to freeway traffic roar past eats away a bit of your life.
- Pollution: Poorer Americans are more likely to live in crowded areas with heavy traffic and in close proximity to freeways; they are also more likely to burn cheap solid fuels such as wood and coal that release more pollutants, and to live in neighborhoods where such burning is common. Further, water in poorer communities is more likely to be contaminated with agricultural and industrial runoff and pharmaceutical wastes.
- Diet: Thanks to taxpayer-funded subsidies to meat and dairy producers, many poor people subsist on a macronutrient diet supplying plenty of fat, protein and carbohydrates and not much else. In a country where corporate subsidies make a bacon double cheeseburger cheaper than a salad, this is also no surprise.
- Activity: Here individual choice is a larger factor, but it is more difficult and less safe to get outside and exercise if you live in a community that is crime-ridden or heavily polluted.
Poverty takes almost ten years off your life.
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An author whose name I have forgotten asks cogently, “Are some men less important than others, so that they should die sooner?”
Many on the political right would say “yes” to this. But if so, who is to judge? And by what measures? Rush Limbaugh unquestionably has more money than Edgar Allan Poe ever did; in part for that reason, he has already lived longer than Poe’s forty years. But a century hence, whose name will our posterity remember with reverence?