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How poverty and food insecurity make people sick

Being poor isn't a lot of fun. For starters, it's more likely to make you sick by the end of each month. 

While government benefits are geared to helping low-income Americans stay healthy by putting food on the table, there's also a downside to receiving food aid: The money comes in only once a month

What does that mean for low-income Americans? Many are living off fumes by the time the month winds down, as they count down the days until their next Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Social Security payment arrives.

Unfortunately, that's taking a toll on the health of poor Americans, who are 27 percent more likely to be hospitalized for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in the last week of the month than in the first, according to new research from the University of California, San Francisco's Department of Medicine that was published in the January issue of Health Affairs. 

To be sure, spending down wages and benefits soon after the check arrives is nothing new: The U.S. Department of Labor estimated in 1930 that most factory workers spent between 75 percent to 100 percent of their earnings by the end of the day after payday, the study notes. Aid recipients understand well the need to stretch out assistance to  last all month, even if they don't always manage to do so. Even today, about three-quarters of Americans live paycheck to paycheck

But for the poorest Americans, that drawdown on available money can have dire results, especially for those suffering from diabetes. Poverty is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to diabetes: With less access and money to buy fresh, healthy food, poorer people are more likely to suffer from the disease, according the American Diabetes Association.

When it comes to poverty and the monthly payout of government benefits, that combination can have a sick effect on health inequalities, the paper in Health Affairs found. Among high-income Americans, no similar jump in hospitalizations for hypoglycemia was found. 

While hypoglycemia might not sound as serious a health ailment as, say, cancer, the costs related to its treatment are surprisingly high: The mean cost per episode that required medical attention was almost $1,200. Lobbying against a cut in food stamps, doctors warned lawmakers this week that cuts in food assistance are likely to raise health care costs. 

"If you're interested in saving health care costs, the dumbest thing you can do is cut nutrition," Dr. Deborah Frank of Boston Medical Center, who founded the Children's HealthWatch pediatric research institute, told The Associated Press.

Food insecurity is just one downside of the widening income gap in the U.S., but it may be poised to become a bigger issue. Lawmakers have reached a deal to cut $9 billion over 10 years from the food stamp program

Food-stamp recipients are already dealing with slimmed-down budgets, given last November's cuts to the program's spending. The reductions are coming as food insecurity has actually increased since 2008, as CBS MoneyWatch reported in December. 

There are some solutions to help ease end-of-month food insecurity. One is to stagger benefits payments so recipients don't rely on a once-per-month system. A biweekly payment system, for instance, could help people spread out their dollars more evenly throughout the month.

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