Poverty and Health: The Mediating Role of Perceived Discrimination
Research has found a strong relationship between poverty and health, and lower levels of income are associated with higher levels of sickness and premature death. In seeking to understand this relationship, researchers often focus on what is called “allostatic load” — the wear and tear on the body as it manages physical and social stresses.
A 2012 study from Cornell University and University of Wisconsin-Madison published in Psychological Science, “Poverty and Health: The Mediating Role of Perceived Discrimination,” analyzed a sample of 252 adolescents who were part of a larger longitudinal study on rural poverty. The subject pool was 92% white, and discrimination levels were determined by asking for responses to statements such as “People treat me differently because of my background”; “I feel I am excluded from certain activities because of my background”; and “People do not respect me because of who I am.” The study looked at the relationship between poverty, perceived discrimination, allostatic load and other measures, and attempted to establish a link among them.
The study’s findings include:
- Poverty was associated with increased allostatic load, and thus higher levels of poverty were associated with higher levels of physiological stress.
- Greater poverty was linked to higher levels of perceived discrimination. Furthermore, there was a strong relationship between perceived discrimination and physiological stress.
- The strength of the effect of poverty on allostatic load decreased by 13% when the variable of perceived discrimination was included; however, the poverty-allostatic relationship still remained significant.
- Analyses of the relationship between Body Mass Index and poverty were conducted to address the “possibility that obesity drove the effects of poverty on perceived discrimination.” Although there was a significant relationship found between poverty and BMI, the relationship between BMI and perceived discrimination was not significant.
- After controlling for the effects of BMI on perceived discrimination, the “effects of poverty on allostatic load remained.” This suggests that “the stigma associated with obesity did not drive the effects of poverty on perceived discrimination, as measured in this study.”
The authors conclude that the “findings of this study show that social-class discrimination may be one mechanism underlying social gradients in health.” But they caution that proof of causation was not established: “Although the analyses presented here show an important link between perceived discrimination and physical health, testing the specific mechanisms underlying this effect was not within the scope of this investigation.”
In related research, a 2011 study from Harvard University examined how stress can help explain disparities in health outcomes along racial lines. Additionally, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology explored how troubled neighborhoods are associated with higher community levels of depression.
Tags: poverty, youth, inequality
Read the study-related Texas Tribune article titled "Major Health Problems Linked to Poverty."
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the study titled “Poverty and Health: The Mediating role of Perceived Discrimination.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?