THE STREETS AGE YOU: The Correlation between Poverty and Ill Health Gary* and I are roughly the same age and have a decent amount in common. We both have children in second grade; we both share the same perverse fascination with American politics; we both have asthma, suffer from an allergy to pet dander and are roughly middle aged (he’s 43 and, alas, I turn forty this coming January). There is, however, one factor in which we differ: our overall physical health. This truth was made particularly clear one day this past spring when I received a distressing phone call from Gary. Sounding beaten and exhausted, he explained how he had recently been rushed to the regional hospital by ambulance after having suffered from what sounded to me like a heart attack.
“So what exactly happened?” I queried, hoping he’d fill me in on the details.
“Could you just come by and see me?” He asked in an almost plaintive tone, ignoring my question. “I’ll explain it to you when you get here.”
Forty minutes later, I was sitting by his bedside in a dimly lit hospital room somewhere in the cardiac care unit— the blinds drawn, the air humming with the ambient noise of monitoring equipment and the low level chatter of nearby nursing staff.
“Well,” he explained, sounding slightly more animated than he did over the phone, “I’ve had this damned flu for the last week or so. On Thursday afternoon, I was starting to hate being cramped up in my apartment so I decided to head out to the library. On the way there, I just felt awful— like I was going to pass out or something. Eventually, I decided to go back home but I realized that there was no way I could make it. So, I ducked into a convenience store and had the guy call an ambulance for me. As it turns out, my resting heart rate was something like 200 beats a minute! The doctor diagnosed me with pneumonia and they admitted me right away. Apparently, he wants me to lose some weight and start taking this heart medication.”
Naturally, I have a lot of male friends who are Gary’s age. However, none of them are coping with a major heart condition. What sets him apart? Well, among other factors, Gary has been living bellow the poverty line for most of his adult life. With just a GED certificate, he has barely managed to secure a series of short-term, minimum wage jobs— jobs that he inevitably loses after a few months, either being laid-off or fired. He’s forced to eat on a budget, opting for cheaper but, more often than not, less nutritious food. It also doesn’t help that he’s been struggling on and off with substance abuse issues since his earlier twenties. The result is a body that likely feels a decade or more older than his actual chronological age. And Gary isn’t the only person I’ve met who is in this predicament.
In fact, just a few minutes after having visited Gary in his hospital room, I ran into Liz*— a sex worker whom I had first met several years ago through my volunteer work with AIDS Saint John. Like Gary, Liz is roughly my age. When I first met her, she appeared relatively healthy. Her stylish clothes complimenting her tall, healthy build, she would most certainly have not looked out of place sitting behind an office desk, working as a manager at a sales company. Today, she looks strikingly different— as if thirteen years had passed rather than merely three. She has lost a significant amount of weight— her now skinny frame standing in strange congruency next to the IV pole to which she remains tethered. And, although I can’t be sure, her face seems more pallid and wrinkled; her hair more grey. Needless to say, years of drugs abuse— not to mention the odd beating from a john— has not resulted in her aging well.
A truth that I have uncovered over the brief course of my inner-city ministry is also a truth that has been well known by researches for years now; namely, that a life lived in poverty ages you. According to some data from Statistics Canada, the average female living in one of the highest income Canadian neighbourhoods is expected to outlive her peers in the lowest income neighbourhoods by 2.7 years. For men, the contrast is more pronounced with a difference of 4.7 years between richest and poorest. Frankly, given what I’ve seen throughout the course of my inner city ministry, I’m surprised that this contrast isn’t greater. But life expectancy is only part of the picture. If we were to look at residents of the South End and Waterloo Village and compare them to, say, those living in an affluent part of the city like Rothesay or Quispamsis, we would probably see a number of differences related to quality of health— a supposition that the Statistics Canada report seems to support. “Life expectancy measures the length rather than the quality of life,” the report cautions, “So it does not necessarily represent the number of years spent in good health.”
I can only speculate upon the myriad factors that may give rise to the greater levels of ill health among impoverished- among them, a poor diet. Let me put it this way: For most of my readers, it isn’t too difficult to fill the fridge with fresh vegetables. A quick, half-hour jaunt to Superstore is all that it takes. However, if you live in an inner-city neighbourhood like Saint John’s South End or Waterloo Village, getting to the Superstore to buy some carrots and celery would require taking one or more buses, costing you both a significant amount of time and a somewhat larger portion of your overall grocery budget. It would make far more sense, therefore, to buy food at the local convenience store- food that is more accessible but considerably less healthy. In addition to this, a lifetime of eating canned foods, for example, surely has an impact upon your taste. You begin to prefer these cheaper, fattier, saltier foods over their healthier, alternatives— a preference that, if you’re a parent, you then pass on to your children, thereby perpetuating the problem.
And then there are the stresses of living below the poverty line— stresses that, if experienced year-after-year, must surely take their toll on the body. Imagine this scenario: You just got evicted from the bachelor pad in the rooming house that you share with five other guys— some of whom have threatened you with physical violence in the past. You need a place to stay but it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to move into a new apartment until the beginning of the next month. In the meantime, you dread having to stay at the shelter where, in the past, you were assaulted and had your stuff stolen. This is a reality for some of the guys that I’ve journeyed with over the course of the last few years. And, with this kind of stress piling up year-after-year, it seems only natural to self-medicate: drinking to excess, smoking copious amounts of marijuana, consuming large amounts of fatty, sugary foods and, in short, adopting a lifestyle that further compromises health, lowering both quality of life and life-expectancy.
In a blog post as short as this, I won’t even begin to suggest how this issue can be rectified (as if I knew!) I will, however, say this: any Christian community based in a high-poverty region, whether urban or rural, ought to have some kind of ministry that addresses the immediate medical needs of the poor. Just think of how often the gospels tell of Jesus offering what some might cynically refer to as “band-aid solutions.” On at least two separate occasions, he puts on a meal program that feeds first five-thousand and then four-thousand hungry peasants. He becomes a kind of one-man hospital, with mobs of people bringing their sick to him on stretchers. He and his disciples restore health to countless people whose bodies have suffered the tole of having lived for decades in straw poverty.
When I think of this kind of ministry, I think of the work of parish nurses throughout this diocese— women who are paid by or volunteer for local congregations and who use their medical training and years of experience to offer foot-care clinics, bandage wounds and assist with the proper use of prescription mediation. I know of one parish nurse who, at least on one occasion, has saved a man’s life as a result of her efforts. Such ministry— like Jesus’ own ministry to the sick and suffering— bears witness to the Kingdom of God. It opens peoples’ minds and imaginations to a deeper, more hopeful reality— a reality of wholeness and wellbeing rather than one of sickness and suffering.
* All the names mentioned in this post have been changed to protect their identity.