Study Exposes Poverty as 4th Leading Cause of Death in the US

Orinoco Tribune, April 21, 2023 —

A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated that poverty was linked to at least 183,000 deaths in the United States in 2019 among people aged 15 and older, making it the fourth leading cause of mortality in the country that year, behind heart disease, cancer, and smoking.

“Poverty kills as much as dementia, accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes,” said David Brady, professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and lead author of the study.

“Poverty silently killed 10 times as many people as all the homicides in 2019,” Brady continued. “And yet, homicide, firearms, and suicide get vastly more attention.”

The new analysis, co-authored by Ulrich Kohler of the University of Potsdam in Germany and Hui Zheng of the Ohio State University alongside Brady, stressed that the US “perennially has a far higher poverty rate than peer-rich democracies,” which “presents an enormous challenge to population health given that considerable research demonstrates that being in poverty is bad for one’s health.”

The researchers analyzed US citizens’ income data from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and death data from household surveys from the Cross-National Equivalent File. They then cross-checked the deaths using a database kept by the US National Center for Health Statistics.

Poverty, which the study defined as making less than half of the median US income, was “associated with greater mortality than many far more visible causes in 2019—10 times as many deaths as homicide, 4.7 times as many deaths as firearms, 3.9 times as many deaths as suicide, and 2.6 times as many deaths as drug overdose.”

“Because the US consistently has high poverty rates, these estimates can contribute to understanding why the US has comparatively lower life expectancy,” the researchers reported.

The researchers argued that their results indicate that “poverty should be considered a major risk factor for death in the US,” which has seen life expectancy decline since 2015 and fall sharply in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The mortality associated with poverty is also associated with enormous economic costs,” they continued. “Therefore, benefit-cost calculations of poverty-reducing social policies should incorporate the benefits of lower mortality. Moreover, poverty likely aggravated the mortality impact of COVID-19, which occurred after our analyses ended in 2019. Therefore, one limitation of this study is that our estimates may be conservative about the number of deaths associated with poverty.”

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 brought about a sharp increase in poverty in the United States as millions of people fell ill, were fired from their jobs, and lost health insurance.

However, government relief initiatives enacted in response to the economic and public health crisis, from stimulus checks to increased unemployment benefits to enhanced nutritional assistance, ultimately led to a significant drop in poverty, reinforcing the case that “poverty is a policy choice.”

Nevertheless, many of those poverty-reducing aid programs have since lapsed or been terminated, threatening to reverse any recent progress.

Poverty should get more attention from policymakers, said Brady, director of University of California Riverside’s Blum Initiative on Global and Regional Poverty.

“If we had less poverty, there’d be a lot better health and well-being, people could work more, and they could be more productive,” Brady said. “All of those are benefits of investing in people through social policies.”

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