Is unemployment a health risk?

A shorter, edited version of this was posted on UrbanCusp.com, a new lifestyle blog that you should check out and follow if it tickles your fancy..

According to NPR and Gallup, among others, the unemployment rate did not change in the month of August, and neither did the number of people who have been unemployed for six months or more. Recently, studies have pointed to record highs in wealth gaps across racial lines. According to the Washington Post, Pew Research Center data that found that “The median net worth of a white family now stands at 20 times that of a black family and 18 times that of a Hispanic family — roughly twice the gap that existed before the recession and the biggest gap since data began being collected in 1984.”

Don’t doubt that the gaps in joblessness are unequal across racial lines. Colorlines breaks it down in the image below. Lowest-income citizens have typically been the most food insecure, linking them to a higher likelihood of illnesses like diabetes and obesity. But the growing population of unemployed represent a new demographic that is now plagued by limited  food access, too. It’s well known that most cheap foods are now considered hazardous to our health. Given the relationship of food choices to economic opportunities, these increasing wealth gaps are alarming, and indeed point to worsening racialized patterns in health outcomes.

While minorities are known to suffer disproportionately from conditions like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, this past year has seen a surge in overweight and obesity– again, with concentrated risk in racial and ethnic groups. Take a quick look at numbers produced by the F as in Fat report, annually tracking trends in obesity over the past 5 or more years. (To note, it’s important to look at obesity as just one outcome of a much more complicated array of health complications that are food related. overweight, diabetes and pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.)

“The report highlights troubling racial, ethnic, regional and income disparities in the nation’s obesity epidemic. For instance, adult obesity rates for Blacks and Latinos were higher than for Whites in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia; 10 out of the 11 states with the highest rates of obesity were in the South — with Mississippi weighing in with highest rates for all adults (33.8 percent) for the sixth year in a row; and 35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year.

Since 1995, when data was available for every state, obesity rates have doubled in seven states and increased by at least 90 percent in 10 others.

Racial and ethnic minority adults, and those with less education or who make less money, continue to have the highest overall obesity rates:
Adult obesity rates for Blacks topped 40 percent in 15 states, 35 percent in 35 states, and 30 percent in 42 states and D.C.
Rates of adult obesity among Latinos were above 35 percent in four states (Mississippi, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Texas) and at least 30 percent in 23 states.
Meanwhile, rates of adult obesity for Whites topped 30 percent in just four states (Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia) and no state had a rate higher than 32.1 percent.”

Today, black unemployment is at 16%, compared to the nation’s 9%. Trends in unemployment are distributing the stresses of economic constraints more evenly across class lines, but still unevenly according to racial and ethnic background. While the lowest income earners and the working poor are assumed to be strapped for cash, many middle-class folks have been forced to reign in on their food spending over the past year. Janell Ross has shared some excellent anecdotal work that complicates our general conception of “the unemployed.” More often than not, it’s a college graduate, someone we know, or someone not too far removed.

Gallup has pushed out insightful studies that speak to just how pervasive the problems of unemployment are for the poor and black communities today. As trends in unemployment continue to preoccupy us, there is overwhelming news of worsening health. According to one Gallup poll, American’s eating habits have worsened over the past year. In particular, Hispanics were least likely to eat produce often, despite the wide availability of seasonal produce during the time the poll was taken (May this year, and compared to last.) In addition, more Americans feel like they don’t have time for the demands of their day-to-day, and as a result stress levels are higher too. Your paycheck shrinks, or disappears and you eat more from the dollar menu- it makes sense. The idea that people who are pre-occupied with expenses would prioritize eating nutrients (anti-oxidants, vitamin C) over calories (what fills me up quickly?) is sort of silly. But the human aspects of being unemployed or consistently on a tight budget— the stresses that these circumstances create– are regularly overlooked in analyses of why people make not so healthy food choices.

For those 9% of Americans and 16% of black Americans, healthy food is often the last priority– if you are strapped for cash or living off a small income, you eat what you can, what’s cheap, and what makes you feel full so that you can focus on other things: applying for jobs full-time, paying off loans and debt, and taking care of other expenses, and focusing on your family’s immediate needs.

As more Americans find themselves in economic straits, the accompanying stresses are even slightly relieved if you can get a quick meal for cheap. Fast-food chains are widely thought to agglomerate in minority communities, but more importantly, they advertise budget deals. The University of Washington found that low-income Americans spend $4 a day on food compared to $7 for an average American. In this context, cheaper, processed foods can become more desirable. Fast food and processed foods tend to be worse for health and high in all sorts of things that increase risk for overweight, obesity, heart disease, increased blood pressure. But in this context, they are close, convenient, and cheap: not only a logical choice, but the only choice for the “budget consumer.”

So, more Americans are unemployed, and feeling the harsh realities of income-limitation. More blacks especially, are unemployed, under-employed, and wealth gaps are higher than they’ve been in over 20 years. Experts acknowledge that cheaper foods are more likely to worsen your health. It appears that fast food sales are doing fine but our health not so well in this period of economic uncertainty not because people don’t know any better, but because of financial burdens. For a significant part of the population, eating is less of a personal choice or preference. People’s hands are tied by what they can spend, what their priorities are, and how much time they have to put towards acquiring food. Most troublesome is that there is no security as to when the economy will pick up, and jobs will be available. Not to mention, it remains questionable that our health care system is equitable and accessible to all.

But can people of color affected by income limitations afford to eat better? There seems to be some debate around this. Are fast foods really cheaper, or are they just marketed to be? Do we choose burgers instead of say, rice and beans because they “taste better”? Have we developed a dependency on meat in order to feel full? My take is that sure, people could probably make some wiser choices about the foods they eat, and there are many reasons behind the choices they make. But mass-unemployment is an excellent example of how individual health is informed by trends in society more than we might otherwise assume.

For the sake of our health, our diets should be at the forefront of our minds. But for as long as so many Americans are unemployed, under-employed, and underpaid– the incentive to economize in food spending will determine what’s for dinner, regardless of how close the healthy stuff is. It’s unjust that our mess of an economy should have health ramifications on so many. Best believe that your local food shelters need all the donations they can get right now.

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