Plenty of research tries to find a correlation between economic factors and a tendency toward being overweight, but the truth is, obesity is not a problem that exclusively comes with poverty. And what’s worse is that if you’re not already struggling financially, dealing with weight problems will certainly make it harder to make ends meet.
Obese Americans costs the U.S. $190 billion in annual medical costs attributable to their weight—or 20 percent of national health-care spending, according to Cawley’s research. That’s a shockingly high figure, and it implies that unpacking the relationship between income and obesity could save America even more money and anxiety than many researchers estimate.
The trouble is that, when it comes to obesity, practically nothing is clear-cut, starting with the word, itself…Equally murky is whether being poor leads to obesity…Still, there is copious evidence around the world that obesity is a peculiar condition for poor people in rich countries. Less-developed countries have lower obesity, but in richer countries, there tends to be an inverse relationship between waistlines and bank accounts. It’s what researchers have called the “health-wealth” effect: Wealthier people tend to be healthier people. In the U.S., rich white women and poor black men have the lowest obesity rates (followed by rich white guys). America’s highest obesity rates by far are among poor minority women. A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s review of the effect of food stamps found obesity didn’t rise among children or men but did increase slightly among women.
So poverty might make some people obese, but obesity definitely makes many people poorer, through two broad channels: (a) it reduces take-home pay, particularly for women; and (b) it’s related to health conditions that reduce discretionary income, too.