Does Living in a Poor Neighborhood Harm Your Health?

The lack of safe and accessible pedestrian infrastructure in poor urban areas might be harming public health. Photo by Mo Riza.

A study conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s found that living in poor neighborhoods can actually hurt your health. Initially an effort to research whether moving impoverished families to more affluent neighborhoods could improve employment and schooling, the study found an interesting relationship between women’s physical condition and their surrounding environment.

The experiment targeted women living in public housing units in neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the residents were considered poor. Between 1994 and 1998, HUD offered 1,800 of these women vouchers to subsidize private housing, the Associated Press reports. The catch was that the vouchers were only redeemable in neighborhoods with fewer than 10 percent of the residents considered poor. The rest of the women were split into two categories. The first group was also given vouchers, but they could redeem them in any neighborhood. The second group wasn’t given any vouchers and was expected to remain in existing housing.

Ten years after the vouchers were distributed, women in the study gave blood samples and provided their weight. “About 16 percent of the women who moved had diabetes, compared with about 20 percent of women who stayed in public housing,” the Associated Press reports. “And about 14 percent of those who left the projects were extremely obese, compared with nearly 18 percent of the other women,” concluding that a person’s risk of diabetes or extreme obesity dropped by about 20 percent when in a higher-income neighborhood.

The study makes some interesting observations, but it doesn’t rush to any explanations when it comes to the elements of higher-income neighborhoods that might have led to the discrepancies in health conditions. One shortcoming of the study is that it didn’t set out to make a connection between environment and health, so it didn’t start following women’s medical conditions and weight from the get-go. Since women from similar age, race, employment and education backgrounds were selected, the study assumes that their health and weight were probably about the same.

Although the study doesn’t point out the exact characteristics of higher-income neighborhoods that might have led to improved health, it does provide four theories as outlined by the article:

  • The availability of healthier food is worse in lower-income neighborhoods.
  • Opportunities for physical exercise are scarcer, and fear of crime can make people afraid to jog or play in parks.
  • There may be fewer doctors’ offices and other medical services.
  • The long-term stress of living in such an environment may alter the hormones that control weight.

The findings of the study are further proof of the importance of safe and accessible public spaces in urban communities, at least for public health, if for nothing else.

What do you make of HUD’s study? Share your comments below.

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