the poor are, says Shafir. “A very common view is that the poor
are poor because they’re less capable,” he says. “Our data suggest
it’s exactly the opposite: It’s poverty that makes them less
Poverty and physical health
A large body of evidence is now showing that socioeconomic
status is also related to poor physical health, in part via the
pathway of stress, says Nancy E. Adler, PhD, who directs
the Center for Health and Community at the University of
California San Francisco’s School of Medicine.
“People lower on the socioeconomic hierarchy are exposed
to many more stressful events, have fewer resources for coping
with those events and are much more in a state of chronic
stress,” explains Adler.
That stress-induced wear on the body can shorten telomeres,
the caps at the tips of chromosomes that help ensure cell
integrity, says Adler. “If telomeres shorten below a critical level,
it’s a good indicator of cell aging and predicts the onset of many
diseases and lower longevity.”
Of course, says Adler, there are ways to manage stress. One
effective strategy is physical exercise, which appears to buffer
the effects of stress. “But people with lower socioeconomic
status usually have less time and [fewer] resources to engage in
exercise,” she says.
In a 2013 paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Adler
and co-authors uncovered another potential buffer: education.
By comparing educational attainment and telomere length in
almost 2,600 older adults, the researchers found significantly
shorter telomeres in people with only a high school education.
A post-high school education was especially beneficial for
“What we’ve been learning over the last couple of decades
of research is the high cost in health and shorter life of having
less education and lower income,” says Adler. “What the data
linking socioeconomic status and telomere length suggest is
how important it is to engage in social policies that will increase
education and boost income.”
How people living in poverty view the stressors they face
can also help, according to research by Edith Chen, PhD, a
psychology professor at Northwestern University.
Chen points to a strategy known as “shift and persist,” in
which low-income young people reframe the stressors they face
to seem more benign while continuing to hold on to hopes of
a better future. A child might accept stress for what it is while
holding on to optimism about the future, for example.
“The shifting part is adjusting yourself to the stressor rather
than trying to change the stressor or make it go away,” says
Chen. “Shifting could be construed as an acceptance of fate, but
the persistence part is the idea of still working toward future
goals — not just giving up and accepting everything that comes
Among adolescents of lower socioeconomic status, the shift-
and-persist approach appears to reduce the risk of asthma-
1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Poverty in the United States, 1960–2010
Sources: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/census/1960/index.html. P