There are a host of studies that document the relationship between social class and various health measures in America. Those with higher incomes are more likely to have health insurance, receive regular medical care, and have a longer expected lifespan. The explanations for these relationships are numerous, including the for-pay nature of health care in America, the numerous mental and physical stressors that accompany poverty, and the many dangers of low-wage labor.
I decided to verify the extent of these relationships in our community by using U.S. census data from the Waco Roundtable. In the boxplots below, each dot represents a census tract in McLennan County, and each tract typically has a population between 2,000 and 8,000 people.
The first boxplot shows the relationship between income and mental distress, which is the percentage of adults who report experiencing poor mental health for at least 14 days in the last month. As you can see, the higher the percentage of adults who make less than 150% of the poverty line, the higher the percentage who report mental distress. The correlation coefficient is 0.713, which is evidence of a strong relationship between income and mental distress.
The second boxplot shows the relationship between physical distress and income. Physical distress is defined as the percentage of adults who report experiencing poor physical health for at least 14 days in the last month. While the relationship is not as strong as the first relationship (this correlation coefficient is 0.460), there is still a visible relationship between the two variables.
Census tracts whose residents have lower incomes also report higher levels of physical distress.
Within our own community, we see a relationship between poverty and physical and mental health. As we continue to strategize about how we can improve the welfare of all people in our community, we must remember that a raise in income is not a mere raise in comfort levels; for many of us, it can be the difference between life and death.
Jeremy Rhodes, Ph.D., is director of research and community impact for Prosper Waco.