Does wealth equal health? A cultural consideration

by dcetter

Having recently moved to – what seems to me – an exercise and health food mecca in the fittest state in the nation (Boulder, CO), I’ve heavily contemplated the culture of health.

Compared to the south, in which I spent the last five years in Greensboro, NC, Boulder is a polar opposite.

In its entirety, Boulder is healthier and more active. Every road has a bike lane, runners bounce at every corner waiting for their signal to cross, and it’s rare to see someone who is overweight. As for the food, it’s hard to eat unhealthy in Boulder the way it’s hard to eat healthy in Greensboro. Deep-fried food is rare and organic is the norm; Vegan and Gluten-free are expected to be seen on virtually every menu and there’s literally organic fast food.

As a change of environment, I certainly find these to be positive and enjoyable differences, and they remain a celebrated point of pride for the people and city of Boulder. However, it’s occurred to me that there is far more to it than people simply choosing healthier habits.

Perhaps my fiancé said it best while we discussed the issue, stating that, “Health is a luxury of the wealthy.” This extends beyond the obvious facts that organic food is pricey, and that fresh fruits and vegetables are far more expensive than fast food, or processed foods with lots of preservatives and a long shelf life. And while this is definitely a large contributing factor, there’s more to it than that.

It’s expensive to be active. Biking to work every morning, as many people in the Boulder area do, requires a nice bike, special equipment, and extra time. Similarly, it’s easy for a stay-at-home wife of a doctor or lawyer to hit the gym twice a day, and not so easy for a single mother working two jobs. Admittedly, that example may be extreme in that it pits polar opposite ends of the spectrum against one another, but consider how heavily economic status weighs on the equation; most middle or lower class parents need to be home immediately after work to watch their kids, as childcare is so expensive; home maintenance and basic chores can take up a great deal of leisure time when you cannot afford to hire help; and gym memberships can be very expensive.

Also, consider the area, and the opportunity to be active and healthy. The city of Boulder has dedicated itself to being bicycle friendly, to maintaining its numerous trails and paths and greenways, and to taking the measures needed to allow its citizens to be so active. But that’s expensive and the city’s incredibly high cost of living reflects these costs. In the surrounding towns, where many people reside who work in Boulder but cannot afford to live there, the percentage of overweight and visibly unhealthy people increases greatly – although I lack any numerical evidence, simply traveling to and around these towns provides the visible proof.

This notion, of health coinciding with wealth, isn’t particular to Boulder alone, and can even be seen in Greensboro. The northwest part of the city is predominantly upper class, educated professionals, and is far more active. The area around the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park looked like Boulder streets on nice afternoons, with troves of people out biking, walking and running. And just as this is probably the only place in the city like that, it’s also the only area in Greensboro where you can find a Whole Foods Market or Earth Fare health food store.

However, to chalk it up to “wealthy equals healthy” is far too all encompassing. After all, there are plenty of poor people who are very healthy and fit, and there are plenty of wealthy people who are terribly unhealthy. So there must be more to it.

I suppose, then, that we must consider other factors in the equation – both those contributing to health and those contributing to wealth: education, environment, opportunity, up-bringing, and the cultural values of the community around you.

Now, it is my observation that these overlap a great deal. So it’s difficult to discuss one without the other. For instance, individuals whose family have money often (probably an understatement) receive a better education, which in turn creates greater opportunity, which leads to joining a community with far different cultural values than those who are poor and uneducated (in most circumstances).

In this, however, we encounter far too many variables to determine a single rule of thumb. As culture, of any kind, is a conglomeration of so many different factors, it is impossible to point to one trend, correlation or commonality and determine it to be true or to produce proven causation. There’s just far more to it than a simple answer; there are far too many complexities.

So does wealth equal health? Yes and no. Not always, but it is certainly easier to maintain a healthier lifestyle if you have the luxury of wealth. And does poverty then lead to people being unhealthy? Not necessarily, but it’s much more common because of the limited options and opportunities that come with being poor.

Where then does this leave me? I guess I’m left needing to explore the overlapping of cultural circumstances. I guess I’m left with the glaring question of, “What is culture?”