While most Americans think of poverty in material terms, said the senate’s lone independent, its effects were more insidious and long-lasting.
The U.S. Senate subcommittee on primary health and aging met Wednesday morning to discuss the effects of poverty and stress on children, communities and health in America.
“Stress and poverty, wondering how I’m going to feed my family tomorrow, pay my bills get the income I need to survive, takes a toll on human life,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Recent studies have shown that stress caused by poverty can influence brain development in children and lay the groundwork for physical health problems that show up later in life.
“Lack of choice and the increased stress that low-income people experience increases their level of cortisol (the primary stress hormone), and we know that higher levels of cortisol are correlated with cardiovascular disorders and other chronic illnesses, including diabetes,” said Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland.
Another witness testified before the panel that the poor tend to engage in riskier behavior – such as smoking, drinking and eating unhealthy foods – but stress tended to trigger some of those bad habits.
“It’s very clear that behavioral pathways are only part of that,” said Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.
The effects of poverty on health and learning were much greater in the U.S. than other developed countries that had stronger safety nets, testified Dr. Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health and professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Obviously they have poverty in other countries, too, but there appears to be more programming and policies in place in those other countries to buffer the impact of material deprivation on families so that in effect children growing up in poor families in these other countries are more protected from the adverse effects than American children are,” Woolf said.
He also noted a Yale University study that found that other countries spent more on social programs and less on health care than the U.S., yet people in those countries tended to live longer and lead healthier lives.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) agreed that the U.S. wastes “far too much money treating people after they become sick,” rather than spending money on preventative measures.
“Healthy people have stable, safe, clean housing, they live in safe neighborhoods with sidewalks (and) they have lots of outdoor spaces,” Warren said.
“Health people can afford nutritious food, healthy people have clean air to breathe (but) for many Americans, these necessities of good health are luxuries they can’t afford,” she said.