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Esther Cepeda: Reassessing poverty’s role

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Esther Cepeda
November 20, 2013

CHICAGO -- Two recent studies hint at a rarely considered aspect of society’s most pervasive ills: violence and obesity. They aren’t reliably limited to the poor.

 First, a fascinating bit of research out of Yale University on Chicago’s gun violence found that a person’s social circle is a key predictor of whether an individual will become a victim of gun homicide—even more so than race, age, gender or level of poverty.

 Echoing what every parent tells their budding teens, Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos said, “Risk factors like race and poverty are not the predictors they have been assumed to be. It’s who you hang out with that gets you into trouble. It’s tragic, but not random.”

 Likening violence to a disease that spreads virally, Papachristos said that people in the same social circles are likelier to engage in similar behaviors and thus increase their probability of being involved in a violent situation if those behaviors include carrying weapons or engaging in criminal activities.

After examining police and gun-homicide records from 2006 to 2011 for residents living within a 6-square-mile area that had some of the highest homicide rates in Chicago, Papachristos and co-author Christopher Wildeman found that only 6 percent of the population was involved in 70 percent of the murders.

 And nearly all of those in the 6 percent already had some contact with the criminal justice or public health systems, plus a 900 percent increased risk of becoming a victim of gun homicide.

 In an interview with NowThisNews, Papachristos noted:

 “You and I are standing on a street corner, you’re not carrying a gun, you’re not selling drugs but you know me and you say ‘I want to go downtown.’ [And I say] ‘My cousin will give you a lift.’ I call my cousin, my cousin gives you a ride and my cousin’s got a gun in his car and he stops to get a Slurpee at 7-Eleven and then all of a sudden something happens and you get hit by a bullet. So: tragic, but not random.”

 This example is interesting in that it is a situation that anyone could envision playing itself out in a middle-class suburb, a blue-collar community or financially hollowed-out neighborhood.

 Next is a study from the Pew Research Center finding that although we tend to think of obesity as primarily a disease of the poor, it varies considerably depending on socioeconomic factors in conjunction with race and gender.

 In the Pew study, researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using data from 2005-08, found that among black and Mexican-American men, obesity actually increased with income. About 45 percent and 41 percent of those men, respectively, were obese at the highest income level, compared with 29 percent and 30 percent at the lowest income level.

 Among women, obesity was indeed most prevalent at lower income levels. But though the trend was similar for all racial and ethnic groups studied, researchers said the correlation between poverty and obesity was statistically significant only for white women.

 Once the prevailing myths about those living in poverty are separated from the realities of why bad things tend to happen to some people and not others, there’s an opportunity to look beyond stereotypes and instead consider environmental factors.

 In order to bend public policy to achieve positive opportunities—whether that’s a culture of healthy eating habits or alternatives to criminal behavior—we need to start thinking about whole societal ecosystems. Ones in which, for instance, overconsumption of junk food is glorified to a certain demographic or leaves people of many different incomes with limited choices for getting around their communities.

 Income levels, specifically labels such as “low-income,” are a big part of the problem in our societal ecosystem. They’re now a Rorschach test for politics that either exemplify those who are struggling or blame them for not achieving enough despite systemic flaws working against them.

 And neither of those views distinguishes between those living in situational poverty—because of an illness, job loss, home foreclosure or some other setback that is likely temporary—from those whose family has lived in poverty for several generations and is unlikely to climb out without major interventions.

 It’s impractical to ditch socioeconomic status entirely when planning for lifting people into the middle class. But once we start thinking about providing opportunities rather than just meeting needs, we might unlock a whole new level of well-being for everyone, not just the “needy.”

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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