It’s a common enough refrain: the poor in rich countries such as the U.S. – or at least the majority of the poor who aren’t homeless – are not really poor. Historically speaking they are better off than their richest ancestors from some centuries ago. They have stuff the Lords of yesteryear could not have imagined. And the same is true if you compare them to the utterly destitute in the Third World.
This story is wrong on many levels:
- First, you need a lot more stuff to be able to earn a decent living in an industrial society than you do in an agricultural one.
- Second, people often think in relative terms when they are asked what “poverty” is, which means that they see poverty not just as absolute destitution but also as the inability to participate in society (poverty is as much a feeling as an objective reality: it’s both a sense of deprivation, inadequacy and exclusion and a lack of nutrition and shelter).
- Third, relative poverty can cause or aggravate absolute poverty: see here and here.
- And fourth, there’s some evidence that relative poverty causes certain harms irrespective of its effects on absolute poverty.
However, none of this seems to persuade those who look at the absolute living standards of the poor in developed countries and compare them to the distant and historical poor. One of the more common arguments: “if the poor in the West are really poor, how come so many of them are fat?” (One example of this argument is here).
The basis of the argument is correct, but not the conclusions drawn from it: the poor in the U.S for instance (but probably in other developed countries as well) are relatively more likely to suffer from overweight (although there are some who contest the data). This is particularly the case for poor women and children:
Even among the homeless in the US – the subset of the poor whose food supply is probably most insecure – one third are obese.
The data seem to give support to those who claim that the poor can’t really be poor: if many of them are obese, they must have abundant food supplies, which means they have a financial surplus. But maybe it’s not abundance but the lack of quality food that causes overweight. Those who are poor and obese may live in neighborhoods where they can’t rely on public transportation as a means to diversify their diet (hence the concept of “food deserts”). Maybe kids in poor neighborhoods can’t enjoy good school meals or healthy exercise in public playgrounds. Maybe poor people also live in unsafe neighborhoods and feel that it’s better to stay inside as much as they can, etc.
Once you’ve considered the possibility that the poor are on average heavier than the rest of us because of reasons likes this, then you’ll understand that they can be both poor and overweight at the same time. Of course, it’s not clear if people will actually eat better and exercise more if they have the options to do so. There’s no single straight line from poverty to obesity, and obesity isn’t just the result of poverty and of the lack of access to healthy food and of physical exercise that it entails. Personal choices also play a role, as does genetics, pollution, lower rates of smoking, medical consumption etc.
Also, in case you’re wondering why this is a human rights issue: poverty causes obesity, obesity causes ill health, and ill health causes poverty. And both ill health and poverty are human rights violations (see here and here respectively). So plenty of reasons to link obesity and human rights.