How Poverty Affects Health – Recognizing National Poverty in America Awareness Month

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Imagine living on less than $1.90 a day.  It’s difficult to fathom.  According to the World Bank, that is the definition of extreme poverty, and about 690 million people live in extreme poverty worldwide, most concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.[1]

Each country has its own definition and categories of poverty. In the United States, about 10.5%, or 34 million people, live in poverty according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data. That equates to an individual living on $35.28 per day, or $12,880 yearly.[2] In spite of its wealth and standing, the U.S. poverty rate is one of the highest among developed nations[3] and its healthcare system ranks last overall compared to ten high-income countries,[4] two factors that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities.

Although the 2019 poverty rate of 10.5% is the lowest observed since 1959, the coronavirus pandemic increased that rate to 11.4% and decreased median household income by 2.9% in 2020. The total number of individuals with full-time employment declined by 13.7 million between 2019 and 2020, the largest year-to-year decline since 1967.[5] Individuals who were already economically disadvantaged have been hit the hardest. In fact, lowest-income households experienced a 3.4% decline in aggregate income, while highest-income households saw a 0.7% increase.[6]

A common misconception is that poverty is an economic consideration alone. In reality, it is a multidimensional issue encompassing various deprivations including poorer quality of life, lower life expectancy, higher chronic condition and disease burden, increased psychological distress, and social stigma and isolation.  This multidimensionality encompasses poverty and socioeconomic status (SES), both of which have been shown to impact health outcomes.  People living in poverty and those with lower socioeconomic status tend to have no or less access to consistent, high-quality healthcare. This “health insecurity” contributes to the cycle of poverty and makes it difficult to break free.

woman getting blood pressure taken
When it comes to closing the serious gaps in health equity and quality of care for key populations, Qlarant is making a difference with Health Disparity Solutions

Poverty is considered one of the social determinants of health. Research has shown that social determinants of health – defined by Healthy People 2030 as “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks”[7] – can account for 60 to 80% of health outcomes.

As we recognize National Poverty in America Awareness Month, it’s an opportunity to affirm Qlarant’s commitment to eliminating disparities and advancing health equity, building on our four decades of experience working with public and private entities to improve health care quality and health outcomes among underserved populations, including low-income and racial or ethnic minorities.


Resources on Food Insecurity

Meal Assistance: Shockingly high numbers of seniors worry about feeding themselves and many go hungry.

  • Food Stamps – Now Known as SNAP
  • NAEHCY Nutrition Resources — The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) has compiled a short brief on the resources available to young children and teens that don’t have access to proper nutrients. This includes information on SNAP and School Breakfast or Lunch Programs.

Resources for Housing Insecurity/Homelessness

  • HUD Rental Assistance — HUD offers some rental assistance — either through public housing or privately owned rentals — for low income individuals and families. Eligibility and rental coverage depends on your state’s local laws as well as the cost of living and number of public housing options in that area. Visit this website to find out more about what is offered and how to contact your local public housing office.
  • HUD Public Housing Information — This website offers general information on what public housing is, who is eligible, how to apply, and other information that may be pertinent to your situation
  • Homeless Shelter Directory — Use this resource to find homeless shelters in your local area. The interactive map will show you the shelters in each city, as well as their phone number, location, and any additional services that these shelters may offer (such as emergency services, religious counseling, addiction recovery, etc).
  • Homelessness Programs and Resources by SAMHSA –  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provide programs that increase access to disability income benefits for eligible adults who are experiencing currently or are at a high risk for homelessness. This resource further defines those programs and resources, and provides eligibility and contact information for each.
CEO Ron Forsythe and Foundation Chair Dominic Szwaja hold ceremonial check for 2021 Grantees
Qlarant Foundation provides charitable grants to organizations seeking to improve health equity, awarding grants up to $50,000 per organization annually

Resources for Help Paying for/Finding Healthcare & Services

Help with Medical Expenses

Perhaps the biggest financial struggle for many seniors is paying for health care costs. According to analysis, average out-of-pocket health care spending by Medicare beneficiaries is sizable and increases with age.

 Social Security, Tax Relief, Legal Help

  •  Supplemental Security Income (SSI): Supplemental Security Income is a Federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not Social Security taxes). It is designed to help aged as well as disabled people who have little or no income. The program provides cash to help meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.
  • Tax Relief: Many states offer tax assistance – especially property tax – to seniors. Contact your state and local tax boards for information on programs in your area.
  • Legal Help: The Senior Legal Hotline provides legal services to seniors with limited resources.

Qlarant's federal and state experience reaches Millions of LivesSeniors and Poverty


[1] Global poverty: Facts, FAQs, and how to help.” World Vision. 23 August 2021.
[2] Emily A Shrider et al. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020.” U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-273, U.S. Government Publishing Office, Washington, DC, September 2021.
[3] Bettina M Beech et al. “Poverty, Racism, and the Public Health Crisis in America.” Frontiers in public health vol. 9 699049. 6 Sep. 2021, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2021.699049.
[4] Eric C. Schneider et al., “Mirror, Mirror 2021 — Reflecting Poorly: Health Care in the U.S. Compared to Other High-Income Countries”. Commonwealth Fund, Aug. 2021.
[5] “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2020.” United States Census Bureau. 14 September 2021.
[6] “COVID-19: This is how many Americans now live below the poverty line.” World Economic Forum. 21 September 2021.
[7] Healthy People 2030, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Retrieved from

about the author

Laura Benzel

Ms. Benzel is a Project Manager at Qlarant and supports the IPRO Quality Innovation Network – Quality Improvement Organization (QIN-QIO).

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