Conditions in the District’s poorest communities foster higher rates of obesity, longer periods of depression, shortened life expectancy and other health issues not shared by their wealthier counterparts, a new report says.
A lack of resources means that poor residents are twice as likely to be obese and three times as likely not to exercise than people in high-income neighborhoods. They also report regularly getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night and experiencing consistently poor mental health for more than two weeks.
“Looking at this more-detailed view of health across income groups makes clear the wealth gap that exists at nearly every stage of wellness,” data analyst Kate Rabinowitz says in a new paper released Tuesday by the D.C. Policy Center.
“Higher rates of obesity, along with less sleep and exercise, are well-documented effects of longer commute times, fewer walkable areas, food deserts, crime and stress associated with poverty,” the report says.
The issue of “food deserts” — which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as areas lacking fresh fruit, vegetables and other whole foods — came into the spotlight earlier this year in a separate D.C. Policy Center report on the availability of healthful food in the city.
The March report shows that 11.3 percent of the District is considered a food desert. And more than three-quarters of the food deserts in the District are located east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8.
A survey by D.C. Hunger Solutions supports those statistics, showing that Ward 7 had four full-service grocery stores and Ward 8 had three in 2010. By 2016, Ward 7 had two grocery stories, and Ward 8 had only one.
“Without access to adequate healthy food, people are likely to be hungry, undernourished, and in poor health, with high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other nutrition-fueled health problems,” D.C. Hunger Solutions said.
All of this leads to a lower life expectancy for poor residents. The British Medical Journal The Lancet found that wealthy Americans live up to 15 percent longer than those who are poor. The study also showed that more than one-third of low-income Americans avoid medical care because of the costs. That’s compared to 7 percent in Canada and 1 percent in the United Kingdom.
And while the problem persists throughout low-income neighborhoods across the country, the District falls well below average.
Among the 100 most-populated counties, the District ranks 65th by average life expectancy for the poorest 20 percent of its residents, according to the Health Inequality Project, a national group that uses data to measure differences in life expectancy by income.
Life expectancy for men in the city is 76.5 years and for women 82 years. Median annual household income across the city is about $75,000 per year.
Montgomery County, Maryland, is third on the list of life expectancy by county, with men living on average to 82.2 years old and women to 84.5 years old. The county boasts a median income of nearly $100,000.
Fairfax County, Virginia, is the second-richest county in the nation, and has a median income of about $113,000. It is 14th on the list, with men living an average of 79.3 years and women 83.4 years.
Solutions to the problem are difficult to address. The Health Inequality Project said reducing the disparity in life expectancy will require targeted local efforts to change health behaviors of the poor.
Looking to counties like Fairfax and Montgomery could help, as well.
“With D.C. ranking in the bottom half of cities for life expectancy of its poorest residents, it’s worth exploring what we can learn from the places with the best outcomes for low-income residents,” says Miss Rabinowitz of the D.C. Policy Center.