Inequality, Health Disparities, & Obesity

An October poll of 1,000 likely voters found that Americans are increasingly concerned about income inequality. When asked: “How Big a Problem is Income Inequality in the US?,” the majority (74%) replied that it was either a big problem or somewhat of a problem. Predictably, there were differences in opinion by political ideology, but a majority of liberals (94%), moderates (81%), and conservatives (55%) answered that inequality was at least somewhat problematic. However, as is true of many polls, it was not specified exactly what people found unsettling about it. I suppose there are many reasons that people might find increasing inequality (and climbing rates of poverty) to be troubling, but I wanted to focus here on inequality and health, particularly on obesity.

First, what do we mean by poverty? I remember watching an interview on PBS with the economist Jeffrey Sachs years ago (transcript here – thank you, Google), where he distinguished between two types of poverty. The first was an extreme form, which he called the type of “poverty that kills.” The other type was more of a poverty of inconvenience or jealousy. I don’t want to over-interpret Sachs’ meaning. It was a passing phrase in an interview from ten years ago, and his primary focus was on alleviating the extreme poverty faced by more than a billion people in the world living on $1 per day (see Sachs 2005). Elsewhere, Sachs has lamented that the media have ignored poverty in the United States at a time when “the U.S. has the greatest income inequality, highest per capita prison population and worst health conditions of all high-income countries.” His credentials in fighting poverty are unassailable. But I cite the old interview here because I think his descriptions (‘poverty that kills’ vs. ‘poverty of jealousy’) might resonate with many people today, and not necessarily in a good way.

Extreme poverty: scavenging at a garbage dump in Phnom Penh (abcnews)

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Demography and the Possible

Living in New England, we have older cemeteries than most other areas of the country (though Eastern hemisphere readers might scoff at what Americans consider ‘old’). I frequently walk with my sons and nephew through a cemetery near my home, as it is a tranquil place away from traffic, where we can go through the woods and throw rocks in the pond. We do this so often that the headstones sometimes become little more than a forgotten backdrop.

However, I do make an effort to remind myself that these headstones are markers of actual human lives. One recently caught my attention, the story of Henry and Susan Battey. I have no knowledge who these individuals were what they looked like, where they lived — other than their names, vital statistics, and the names of their children. It is their children on the backside of the headstone that struck me. The Batteys had three children, losing all of them as infants. That occurs to me as nature (or poverty, or whatever the cause) at its most cruel and indifferent.

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