Health, Wealth and Poverty: How Inequality Shortens Lives

Where is health at risk in your city?

Your health is determined by a variety of factors. Some are internal, like genetics, but up to 40% of your health outcomes can be attributed to social factors like income. City leaders should always consider how policies they support will help or harm community health. Understanding how economic well-being is tied to mental and physical health can help communities prioritize equity for a healthier city.

Poverty and inequality are both predictors of premature death. The number one predictor of health is not whether a person has health insurance, whether they eat well, or even whether they smoke. Multiple studies confirm that whether or not someone is wealthy is a more important determinant of health than all those factors.

In Kansas City, Missouri the pattern is clear. Residents of the City’s wealthiest zip codes live the longest while the city’s poorest residents live the shortest lives.

Fighting inequality by improving the economic well-being of vulnerable families and neighborhoods is vital to improving health.

For this analysis we are looking at how poverty and inequality affect life expectancy. There is a clear correlation between life expectancy and median household income in Kansas City.

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What does an extra $20,000 a year buy? 15.5 Years.

Residents in the lowest life expectancy ZIP codes face dramatic economic challenges to health. The median household income in high priority ZIP codes is more than $20,000 less than the median household income of the city as a whole, and is over $60,000 less than the most affluent (and longest living) ZIP codes.

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One way that economists understand inequalities in wealth distribution is through the Gini Index, sometimes known as the Gini coefficient. The Gini Index is a single number that attempts to capture one aspect of economic inequality; the distribution of wealth or income. A Gini index of 0 represents total wealth or income equality, meaning everyone has the same wealth or income. A Gini coefficient of 1 represents total wealth or income inequality, meaning only one person has all the wealth or income. This can be calculated at various geographic levels. While the overall image of the city is neutral at 0.48, certain areas of the city have much higher rates of income inequality.

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Poverty and Urban Health

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of poor health. Poverty increases chances of poor health and poor health, in turn, traps communities in poverty. The cost of doctors’ fees, prescriptions, and transportation to reach a health provider can be devastating for families living in poverty. Conversely, families with higher incomes can more easily purchase healthy foods and pay for health services and transportation.

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Transforming Data into Policy

This data can be used to pinpoint economically insecure neighborhoods and help direct resources to the places where they are needed most, promoting better health for residents. For example, the map reveals an area where an estimated 50% or more of residents are living within 150% of the federal poverty level. These are areas where more resources are needed for improving the economic security and therefore the health of the community.

Want to interact with the visualizations you see here? Check out the mySidewalk report.

This article is based on the Kansas City, MO Community Health Improvement Plan. This plan reviews several indicators of health in Kansas City, and does an exceptionally good job showing how income inequality harms health in the city. To learn more about this data and its importance in your city, check out Social Determinants of Health Inequity.