Original Article

Poverty and Health in Tennessee

Authors: Kate Beatty, PhD, MPH, Olivia Egen, MPH, John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH, Randy Wykoff, MD, MPH&TM


Objectives: Understanding the impact of poverty on health can inform efforts to target social programs and regional economic development. This study examined the effects of poverty on health among the 95 counties of Tennessee.

Methods: All of the counties of Tennessee were ranked by 5-year median household income, from the wealthiest to the poorest. The counties were divided into quintiles, from wealthiest to poorest, to reflect the general impact of wealth on health. Next, the five wealthiest counties and the five poorest counties were identified, allowing for examination of the extremes of poverty and wealth within Tennessee. Comparisons of quintiles and five wealthiest and poorest counties on key measures were performed using the independent t test.

Results: People living in the wealthiest quintile lived on average 2.5 to 4 years longer and had lower rates of all health behaviors and health outcomes investigated compared with those in the poorest quintile. This disparity was even more pronounced when comparing the wealthiest five counties to the poorest five. The five poorest counties, for example, had twice the years of potential life lost and were overwhelmingly rural in character, with similar accompanying disparities such as median income, high unemployment, and a more aged population.

Conclusions: This study highlights the fact that lower income is associated with significantly worse health outcomes in Tennessee and reinforces the importance of economic development, specifically, and addresses the social determinants, more generally, in helping to improve Tennessee’s overall health statistics.

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