Worrying about health may be a cross-cultural preoccupation, but how Americans view the causes of poor health depends on their bank accounts.
The poor are more likely to say a lack of money has a harmful effect on a person's health than are higher-income Americans, according to a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and NPR.
Poverty has long been linked with poorer health, with studies tying a lack of financial resources to everything from mental health issues to higher rates of asthma. That's clearly being felt by low-income Americans, with the study finding that those earning less than $25,000 per year view the biggest factors in becoming ill range from bad working conditions to poor housing.
Wealthier Americans are more likely to cite a lack of top medical care, personal behavior and viruses for their illnesses.
That may explain why poorer Americans said they felt they have less control over their own health than those with higher incomes. People earning less than $50,000, or below the median U.S. household income of about $52,000, are more than twice as likely as those earning above that level to feel they don't have much control over their health, the study found.
Aside from a sense of powerlessness, that could also have a very real impact on the steps poorer Americans take -- or don't take -- in making health changes.
"Those who think they have control over their health are more likely than those who do not think they do to report that they put a great deal or quite a bit of effort into improving their own health," the study noted.
About half of Americans who said their own health is fair or poor said they don't believe they have much control over their physical well-being, the study found. Still, some of the issues that poor Americans say cause illness may be environmental issues that are beyond their control.
Americans earning $25,000 per year -- which is about poverty-level for a family of four -- may not have many options for moving to a better neighborhood, for example. About 40 percent of low-income Americans say poor neighborhoods and bad housing conditions cause illness, while only 27 percent of those with incomes above $75,000 per year agree. Bad working conditions were also cited by four out of 10 low-income respondents as a contributing factor to ill health, compared with about one-quarter of higher-income Americans.
Interestingly, poorer Americans are also more likely to say "God's will" is a factor in why someone becomes sick, at 37 percent of respondents earning $25,000 or less compared with 25 percent of Americans with incomes over $75,000. Poor Americans are twice as likely as wealthier consumers to blame bad luck, the study found.
While that might seem like many Americans are playing the blame game, the fact is that two-thirds are taking steps to improve their health, the study found. Only one-third say they are skipping actions that could lead to a healthier life. The top activities for improving fitness include eating healthy fruit and vegetables, avoiding stress, and limiting consumption of fast food, liquor and sugar-sweetened drinks. One out of six Americans said they are on a diet.
Despite taking positive steps toward improving their health, four out of 10 Americans say they believe they continue to suffer from the negative impact of childhood experiences. Those harmful childhood experiences range from the death of a family member to growing up in a low-income household.
"Americans' reported beliefs about the harmful effects of childhood experiences correspond to the conclusions from a number of scientific studies," the report noted. "Published studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences are associated with an increased risk of illness or premature mortality."
Interestingly, about half of those who believe they don't have much control over their own health also cited the ongoing impact of negative childhood experiences. Yet given the trend of more children living in poverty, with one in three American kids now living below the poverty line, it's likely the U.S. could be paying the price for years to come.
The report concluded, "These findings suggest the importance of paying attention to key events and life circumstances that may shape individuals' future health."