Poverty's Dangerous Impact on Health

"Poverty's Dangerous Impact on Health"

Written by Christopher Allaire

The neighborhoods in which we live have profound and lasting effects on our health and well-being.  Some of these effects can be easily observed and obvious such as exposure to pollution and environmental toxins.  Others are more subtle and harder to identify, such as the impact on one’s mental health from living in a violent neighborhood.  Scientists, however, are beginning to understand the complex relationship between poverty, the places that we live, and individual health outcomes.  This article will outline the three major neighborhood environments that affect health outcomes and explain how these environments are relevant to our community in Buffalo and Western New York.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission on Health, there are three, often overlapping, environments that can promote health or put it in jeopardy—the physical environment, the service environment, and the social environment.   The physical environment is the built and natural world in a neighborhood.  This includes the buildings, streets, air, water, and soil in a particular neighborhood.  The physical environment can affect health through exposure to toxins such as lead paint in homes and air pollution from high traffic density.  In Buffalo, because of the legacy of historic segregation which has concentrated poverty and people of color in particular patterns throughout the city, Black and other non-white residents are exposed to higher levels of exposure from the physical environment.  According to a recent study by the Partnership for Public Good, Black Buffalonians had the highest rates of exposure to air pollution in the city and higher levels of exposure than 34 percent of the census tracts in the entire United States.  

The service environment in neighborhoods refers to public services that are available to individuals such as access to grocery stores, public schools, employment opportunities, and public transit.  Ready access to full-service supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods can increase health and help offset higher levels of obesity associated with high concentrations of fast food restaurants.  A recent study conducted by the Health Policy Institute found that African Americans were “five times less likely than whites to live in census tracts with supermarkets, and are more likely to live in communities with a high percentage of fast-food outlets, liquor stores, and convenience stores.”  The Partnership for the Public Good found that the majority of Buffalo’s food deserts to be “clustered in the eastern part of the city-- in neighborhoods where at least three in four residents are people of color.”  This shocking statistic again highlights the legacy of historic segregation, which has deepened since the 1960s and has concentrated poverty in our community.  

The final and often overlooked component of a neighborhood that affects individual health is the social environment.  The social environment is the relationship networks and mutual feelings of connectedness that develop in a neighborhood.  Although less easy to identify than the positive or negative effects of the service or physical environments, the social environment has important health-related outcomes for individuals.  For example, the National Institute for Justice, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, conducted a landmark study in Chicago to determine the effects of strong neighborhood communities on health and violence.  The study found that strong neighborhood cohesion and social networks are “linked with decreased violence and weakened the relationship between violence and a neighborhood’s social composition….strong neighborhood networks can collectively lessen the effects of concentrated poverty.”  In this way, closely knit neighborhoods with mutual feelings of connectedness between residents result in healthier neighborhoods with fewer incidences of violence and less exposure to traumatic crime for young children.

It is important to understand the interconnectedness of the environment, poverty, and health in our neighborhoods in order to make better policy decisions for the people of Western New York.  By fighting segregation and the concentration of poverty in our community, Western New Yorkers can ameliorate the worst negative health consequences of the neighborhood environment and substitute them for the positive health benefits derived from mixed-income, diverse neighborhoods.  As Western New Yorkers, we should all strive to ensure that everyone has the ability to obtain optimal personal health through the reversal of decades of segregation and discriminatory housing in our community.