This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface


 Problems of Health in the United States



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13.3 Problems of Health in the United States

LEARNING OBJECTIVES


  1. Describe how and why social class, race and ethnicity, and gender affect physical health and health care in the United States.

  2. Summarize the differences that social class, race and ethnicity, and gender make for mental health.

When we examine health and health care in the United States, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is considerable. Health has improved steadily over the last century, thanks in large part to better public sanitation and the discovery of antibiotics. Illnesses and diseases such as pneumonia and polio that used to kill or debilitate people are either unknown today or treatable by modern drugs. Other medical discoveries and advances have also reduced the extent and seriousness of major illnesses, including many types of cancer, and have prolonged our lives.

Because of these and other factors, the US average life expectancy climbed from about 47 years in 1900 to about 78 years in 2010. Similarly, infant mortality dropped dramatically in the last half-century from 29.2 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950 to only 6.75 in 2007 (see Figure 13.4 "Infant Deaths per 1,000 Live Births, United States, 1950–2007"). Cigarette smoking declined from 51 percent for males and 34 percent for females in 1965 to 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in 2009 (National Center for Health Statistics, 2011). [1] In another area, various policies during the past three decades have dramatically reduced levels of lead in young children’s blood: 88 percent of children had unsafe levels in the mid-1970s, compared to less than 2 percent three decades later (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007).[2]



Figure 13.4 Infant Deaths per 1,000 Live Births, United States, 1950–2007

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig13_004.jpg

Source: Data from National Center for Health Statistics. (2011). Health, United States, 2010. Hyattsville, MD: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Poor Status of American Health


Unfortunately, the bad news is also considerable. Despite all the gains just mentioned, the United States lags behind most other wealthy democracies in several health indicators, as we have seen, even though it is the wealthiest nation in the world. Moreover, 14.5 percent of US households and almost 49 million Americans are “food insecure” (lacking sufficient money for adequate food and nutrition) at least part of the year; more than one-fifth of all children live in such households (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2011). [3]More than 8 percent of all infants are born at low birth weight (under 5.5 pounds), putting them at risk for long-term health problems; this figure has risen steadily since the late 1980s and is higher than the 1970 rate (National Center for Health Statistics, 2011). [4] In other areas, childhood rates of obesity, asthma, and some other chronic conditions are on the rise, with about one-third of children considered obese or overweight (Van Cleave, Gortmaker, & Perrin, 2010). [5] Clearly the United States still has a long way to go in improving the nation’s health.

There is also bad news in the social distribution of health. Health problems in the United States are more often found among the poor, among people from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, and, depending on the problem, among women or men. Social epidemiology refers to the study of how health and illness vary by sociodemographic characteristics, with such variations called health disparities. When we examine social epidemiology in the United States, we see that many health disparities exist. In this way, health and illness both reflect and reinforce society’s social inequalities. We now turn to the most important health disparities, starting with physical health and then mental health.


Health Disparities: Physical Health

Social Class


Not only do the poor have less money, but they also have much worse health, as the news story that began this chapter illustrated. There is growing recognition in the government and in medical and academic communities that social class makes a huge difference when it comes to health and illness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). [6]

Many types of health indicators illustrate the social class–health link in the United States. In an annual survey conducted by the government, people are asked to indicate the quality of their health. As Figure 13.5 "Family Income and Self-Reported Health (Percentage of People 18 or Over Saying Health Is Only Fair or Poor), 2009" shows, poor people are much more likely than those with higher incomes to say their health is only fair or poor. These self-reports of health are subjective indicators, and it is possible that not everyone interprets “fair” or “poor” health in the same way. But objective indicators of actual health also indicate a strong social class–health link (National Center for Health Statistics, 2011). [7]



Figure 13.5 Family Income and Self-Reported Health (Percentage of People 18 or Over Saying Health Is Only Fair or Poor), 2009

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig13_005.jpg

Source: Data from National Center for Health Statistics. (2011). Health, United States, 2010. Hyattsville, MD: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Children and Our Future


The Poor Health of Poor Children

When we consider health disparities, some of the most unsettling evidence involves children. As a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded, “The data illustrate a consistent and striking pattern of incremental improvements in health with increasing levels of family income and educational attainment: As family income and levels of education rise, health improves. In almost every state, shortfalls in health are greatest among children in the poorest or least educated households, but even middle-class children are less healthy than children with greater advantages.”

Some government data illustrate the difference that poverty makes for the nation’s children:


  • Children of poor mothers are more than twice as likely as children born to wealthier mothers to be born with low birth weight.

  • By the age of 9 months, poor children are already more likely to exhibit poor health and lower cognitive and socioemotional development.

  • By age 3, poor children are two-thirds more likely to have asthma than children whose families’ incomes are more than 150 percent of the poverty line.

  • Based on their parents’ reports, poor children are almost five times more likely (33 percent compared to 7 percent) to be in less than very good health (i.e., their parents rated their children’s health as poor, fair, or good rather than as very good or excellent).

In these and other ways, children in low-income families are more likely than children in wealthier families to have more health problems, many of which last into adolescence and adulthood. Poor children’s poor health thus makes a critical difference throughout their lives. As sociologist Steven A. Haas and colleagues observe, “A growing body of work demonstrates that those who experience poor health early in life go on to complete less schooling, hold less prestigious jobs, and earn less than their healthier childhood peers.”

One reason for the poor health of poor children is that their families are more likely to experience many kinds of stress (see Chapter 2 "Poverty"). Another reason is that their families are more likely to experience food insecurity and, if they are urban, to live in neighborhoods with higher levels of lead and pollution. Low-income children also tend to watch television more often than wealthier children and for this and other reasons to be less physically active; their relative lack of physical activity is yet another reason for their worse health. Finally, their parents are much more likely than wealthier parents to smoke cigarettes; the secondhand smoke they inhale impairs their health.

The clear evidence of poverty’s effects on the health of poor children underscores the need of the United States to do everything possible to minimize these effects. Any money spent to reduce these effects will pay for itself many times over throughout these children’s lifetimes: They will have fewer health problems as they grow up, costing the United States much less in health care, and be better able to do well in school and to have higher incomes as adults. In both the short run and long run, then, improving the health of poor children will also improve the economic and social health of the whole nation.

Sources: Haas, Glymour, & Berkman, 2011; Kaplan, 2009; Murphey, Mackintosh, & McCoy-Roth, 2011; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2008[8]

For example, poor adults are also at much greater risk for many health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and some types of cancer. Rates of high blood pressure, serious heart conditions, and diabetes are at least twice as high for middle-aged adults with family incomes below the poverty level than for those with incomes at least twice the poverty level. All these social class differences in health contribute to a striking difference in life expectancy, with Americans whose family incomes are more than four times the federal poverty level expected to live 6.5 years longer than those living in poverty (Kaplan, 2009). [9]

Several reasons account for the social class–health link (Pampel, Krueger, & Denney, 2010). [10] One reason is stress, which, as Chapter 2 "Poverty"explained, is higher for people with low incomes because of unemployment, problems in paying for the necessities of life, and a sense of little control over what happens to them. Stress in turn damages health because it impairs the immune system and other bodily processes.

A second reason is that poor people live in conditions, including crowded, dilapidated housing with poor sanitation, that are bad for their health and especially that of their children. Although these conditions have improved markedly in the United States over the last few decades, they continue for many of the poor.

Another reason for the poor’s worse health is their lack of access to adequate health care. As is well known, many poor people lack medical insurance and in other respects have inadequate health care. These problems make it more likely they will become ill in the first place and more difficult for them to become well because they cannot afford to visit a physician or to receive other health care. Still, social class disparities in health exist even in countries that provide free national health care, a fact that underscores the importance of the other reasons discussed here for the social class–health link (Elo, 2009). [11]

A fourth reason is a lack of education, which, in ways not yet well understood, leads poor people to be unaware or unconcerned about risk factors for health and to have a fatalistic attitude that promotes unhealthy behaviors and reluctance to heed medical advice (Elo, 2009). [12] In one study of whether smokers quit smoking after a heart attack, only 10 percent of heart attack patients without a high school degree quit smoking, compared to almost 90 percent of those with a college degree (Wray, Herzog, Willis, & Wallace, 1998). [13]

A final reason for the poor health of poor people is unhealthy lifestyles, as just implied. Although it might sound like a stereotype, poor people are more likely to smoke, to eat high-fat food, to avoid exercise, to be overweight, and, more generally, not to do what they need to do (or to do what they should not be doing) to be healthy (Pampel et al., 2010). [14] Scholars continue to debate whether unhealthy lifestyles are more important in explaining poor people’s poor health than the other factors just discussed. Regardless of the proper mix of reasons, the fact remains that the poor have worse health.


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