Why poverty is a public health concern

Why poverty is a public health concern

Health and poverty are inextricably intertwined. Being able to breast-feed, attend school, work to grow food, earn a living or feed a family all depend on a baseline level of good health. Yet, when more than a billion people live on less than $1 per day and 2 billion on less than $2 a day, many have little scope to save against future costs of poor health or even to pay for health services today.

Extreme poverty interacts with health in many ways and undermines a whole range of human capabilities, possibilities and opportunities. Evidence from all parts of the world support a link between poverty, hunger and poor child health. Poor child health and hunger lead to poor school performance and therefore to a later inability to find good work and support the next family. Thus, the downward spiral that maintains poverty continues (i.e. generational poverty).

Poverty also leads to increased dangers to health: working environments of poorer people often hold more environmental risks for illness and disability; other environmental factors, such as lack of access to clean water, disproportionately affect poor families. Over 40% of the world’s population do not have basic sanitation, and more than 1 billion people still use unsafe sources of drinking water.

People enduring poverty are also usually less educated. They often have less knowledge about activities to promote health and when to access health care; for example, poor women access antenatal services less frequently and suffer poorer birthing outcomes than women with financial resources. These effects extend beyond birth: children born to women with 5 years or more of primary school education have a 40% higher survival rate than those born to women with no education.

The relation between poverty and health has become a key focus in recent international policy development. Development and economic discourse alike acknowledge health as central to poverty reduction and socioeconomic development. The effect of hunger on labour productivity is estimated to reduce the gross domestic product (GDP) by 6%–10% per capita; iron deficiency anaemia alone accounts for 2%– 7% of forgone GDP in some developing countries.


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