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Study: When It Comes To Health, Your Neighborhood's Poverty May Matter More Than Your Own

A street view of downtown Fresno with smoggy skies.
Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio
Smog partially obscures the old Security Bank building in downtown Fresno.

Scientific research has demonstrated that, in general, the richer a person is, the healthier he or she is likely to be. Likewise, those with private insurance tend to be healthier than those on Medi-Cal. A new study, however, suggests neighborhood-level poverty may be even more important.

If you’re a child on Medi-Cal, you’re worse off living in a poor community than an affluent one. That is one of the findings in a new study out this week in the research publication Journal of Asthma.

Neighborhood-level factors are already known to impact individual health, but this study attempts to determine how much.

Emanuel Alcala, lead author and a researcher at both Fresno State and UC Merced, says health disparities between rich and poor, or between Medi-Cal and privately insured patients, are more pronounced when the neighborhood itself is poor.

"We still find that the level of poverty at your community has independent effects of asthma morbidity beyond those individual characteristics and associations," he says.

The findings arise from an analysis of asthma-related hospitalization and emergency room data among San Joaquin Valley kids.

Alcala hypothesizes these trends could have something to do with what he calls a neighborhood's social disorder—things like violence, drugs, and trash.

"In communities where there’s more social order, this might provide protective effects in the association between air quality and asthma," Alcala says, "and in communities where there’s more social disorder, the same amount of air quality might produce higher rates of asthma."

The research is ongoing and is part of a long-term study of the social determinants of health in the Valley. 

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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