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Report: Poverty is a Real Killer

Patti Singer

Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health, talks Nov. 18 about the toll of poverty on health. Cynthia Clay left, and Leonard Brock of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative also spoke. Photo by Patti Singer/ Minority Reporter Media Group.

Too much month at the end of money is more than a financial strain.

The stress saps health, which can lead to early death.

In the poorest areas of the city and the Finger Lakes region, people die up to eight years earlier than residents of wealthier neighborhoods. The differences aren’t as simple as nutrition, smoking and exercise.

The cause is health inequity – a difference in health status or resources based on social factors rather than solely on an individual’s traits or behaviors.

The results are laid out in the report, “Overloaded: The Heavy Toll of Poverty on Our Region’s Health,” released Nov. 18 by Common Ground Health.

“Risk factors are not predictive factors when there are protective factors,” said Wade Norwood, chief executive officer of Common Ground Health, which is the health planning agency for the nine-county Finger Lakes region. “The aim is for our community to have a greater focus on what are the things driving health inequity so that we as a community can be increasingly focused on knowing how to invest in and promote protective factors, and how to dismantle hate and illness with the redeeming power of love.”

In the Finger Lakes over the past few years, health inequities accounted for 19,580 years of potential life lost, which is a measure of premature mortality. That figure was more than homicide, suicide, lung cancer and opioid overdoses combined – and all forms of cancer – according to the report.

Norwood didn’t dismiss those causes of death. “They are important and they are worthy of all the attention we have paid to them. What I mean to say is that if we were really to think about the impact of poverty on health in this region, we would understand that it is a driver that is dwarfing other drivers.”

While giving details about what health inequities mean to people living in poverty, “Overloaded” was not a prescription to achieve health equity. Instead, the next steps are being left to organizations and systems that provide care, and to local and state government agencies that set policies that could relieve the burden of poverty to improve health. Norwood said he has taken the report to many of those agencies. He and Leonard Brock, executive director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, said promoting health across all incomes is crucial to creating a thriving community.

“Overloaded” was developed over three years and in large part was based on surveys from residents throughout the region. Common Ground optimistically hoped for about 2,500 responses, but nearly 7,000 people participated.

The data about mental health were particularly striking.

About 16% percent of people reported poor or only fair mental health. That rate increases to about 50% when people report low income and living in an unsafe neighborhood. People at the lowest incomes also were three times more likely to feel helpless, four times more likely to feel anger and four times more likely to do something self-destructive.

Most measures of health study the effects of behaviors, rates of disease, and deaths in the forms of infant mortality and adult life expectancy.

“Overloaded” looked at whether it’s even practical for someone to eat vegetables instead of chips. Those factors include transportation and housing and the availability of health services, business and government policies and socioeconomic status.

When it comes to wanting good health, “there is nothing different about poor people except they don’t have enough money,” Norwood said. Among survey respondents, 56% of people earning less than $25,000 a year and 55% of people earning at least $75,000 said it was important to eat healthy. As for why they don’t, 54% of low-income earners said it was too expensive and 31% blamed lack of transportation. Among higher earners, 37% said they lacked time and 2% said they lacked transportation.

Poverty and its effects cross racial and geographic lines, but overall according to the report, Blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to live in poverty.

Brock said he lived the reality displayed by the data. His family lived in Rochester’s crescent. This past summer, his mother died at age 65 from metastatic cancer and two months later, her youngest brother died at age 60.

“As a 38-year-old man who grew up in the heart of the crescent, sometimes I think about my own mortality,” Brock said. “That’s not an easy burden to carry. I may not be overloaded, but clearly that’s something that plays on my psyche to this very day.”

To read “Overloaded: The Heavy Toll of Poverty on Our Region’s Health,” go to

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