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Escaping the Poverty Trap: The Role of Healthcare Access

As of 2022, 11.5% of the United States population, or 37.9 million people, are living in poverty. Families experiencing poverty face significant challenges accessing healthcare resources. Healthcare is crucial in preventing productivity loss due to illness, serving as the line of defense against worse living conditions. Ensuring access to healthcare is a key step in addressing poverty in the United States.


Health and wealth are intertwined. Good health enables individuals to engage in economic activities. It opens up life-changing opportunities, especially for those in poverty who lack other means. However, impoverished communities often face health barriers that hinder their ability to improve their living standards. 


In the United States, the life expectancy of the richest 1% of men is 14.6 years longer than that of the poorest 1%. For women, it is 10.1 years longer. Country-level poverty is associated with higher mortality rates from conditions including heart, liver and kidney disease. Given the current severe health challenges faced by impoverished communities, guaranteeing access to healthcare services would significantly impact their sustainability and development.


From a policy perspective, improving the healthcare system to promote equity and affordability would also help address poverty across the United States. The limited ability to pay for medical services has been one reason why the poor have worse health conditions, and the current healthcare system still primarily operates on high-priced fee-for-service billing, resulting in high medical expenditures. This makes it difficult for individuals with limited financial resources to afford basic healthcare, exacerbating their situation. 


The United States has the highest medical expenses globally, which limits social funding in other areas that could address poverty. The high cost of medical care has burdened Americans, leading to concerns about medical service utilization. This is particularly true among those experiencing poverty given their financial strains. These high costs make it even more challenging for individuals to access necessary healthcare services, further worsening their health conditions and limiting opportunities for life improvement. 


At the individual level, financial hardship explains only part of the issue and introduces non-obvious hurdles that may leave a longer-term impact. For example, being poor often means lacking access to transportation, making it difficult to attend medical appointments. Other issues such as a lack of awareness in managing long-term diseases and obtaining insurance also create barriers to improving the health condition of the poor. 


Social programs like Medicaid address some financial constraints but do not solve all the barriers to healthcare access. Interventions that consider long-term determinants could further ensure that impoverished communities have sustainable access to healthcare, helping them escape poverty.


Changes at the individual and systemic levels within the healthcare sector could help alleviate the poverty problem in the United States. The top five pharma companies raked in a massive $80 billion in profits, while many Americans still struggle to afford healthcare. 


Due to their unsatisfactory health conditions, those without proper coverage may miss out on simple joys that healthy people take for granted, leaving them feeling hopeless about their future. However, some may believe that addressing healthcare alone would have a limited impact on other contributing factors to poverty. 


Therefore, efforts targeting healthcare may not be an effective and direct solution to address poverty,  as enhanced access to healthcare wouldn't directly alleviate the economic challenges experienced by those in poverty, as it wouldn't directly increase their income or improve their living standards. However, health is the foundation of many opportunities, influencing an individual's ability to engage in various activities. These activities could lead to improved status such as better educational attainment, employment and eventually, overall quality of life. 


The significant role of healthcare in addressing poverty is underscored by programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which serve millions each year and have been contributing to reductions in poverty and improved health outcomes. For policymakers, this serves as a poignant reminder of the critical role healthcare plays in uplifting communities from the depths of poverty.


Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author.

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3 Comments


Very well articulated. Your point about how targeting healthcare is in many ways not the best route to tackle poverty may also connect to the recent Stanford study finding the cancellation of medical debt often does not improve beneficiaries overall well-being. Like debt, poor health is often the consequence of poverty, like the treatment of symptoms without pursuit of a cure.

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Amazing job, Ellie. You explained the issue very clearly and presented a compelling argument on a very essential topic right now.

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Hi Ellie, I really liked how you clearly linked wealth and health outcomes. As you outlined, I think it is ridiculous that the U.S. has the highest medical expenses globally, especially considering that the United States has a lower life expectancy than any other comparable country. I believe that healthcare and poverty need to be addressed in a holistic manner so that we can best confront these issues.

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