Less Wealth, Poorer Health
American health was poor even before the pandemic, with 60% of the population suffering from a chronic condition, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart failure. These four conditions were associated with nearly two-thirds of hospitalizations from covid, according to a February study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Deaths from some chronic diseases began rising in lower-income Americans in the 1990s, Woolf said. That trend was exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2007-09, which undermined the health not just of those who lost their homes or jobs but the population as a whole.
Still, the Great Recession, and its resultant health effects, did not affect all Americans equally. Black people in the U.S. today control less wealth than they did before that recession, while the gap in financial security between Black and white Americans has widened, according to a Nonprofit Quarterly article published last year. And the unemployment rate among Black workers did not recover to pre-recession levels until 2016.
Researchers have developed a better understanding in recent years of how chronic stress — such as that caused by poverty, job loss and homelessness — leads to disease. Unrelenting stress causes inflammation that can damage blood vessels, the heart and other organs.
Research shows that people with low incomes live an average of seven to eight years less than those who are financially secure. The richest 1% of Americans live nearly 15 years longer than the poorest 1%.
People who are poor tend to smoke more; have higher risks of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and mental illness; and are more likely to become victims of violence.
The stress of the pandemic also has led many people to smoke, drink and gain weight, increasing the risk of chronic disease. Fatal drug overdoses spiked 30% from October 2019 to October 2020.
Jennifer Drury, 40, has struggled with substance abuse, particularly prescription painkillers, since her 20s. She blames the isolation and stress of the pandemic for causing her to relapse — and leading several of her friends to fatally overdose.
“Idle time is not good for addiction,” said Drury, who fell behind on rent and was evicted from her previous home. She said drug dealers are never far away, especially at the New Orleans motel where she and her husband are now staying. “Drug dealers don’t care about pandemics.”