Connections Between Poverty, Education and Health

The United Health Foundation just released national rankings on which states are the healthiest. (1) Every one of the least healthy states were in the south. How do these unhealthy states rank in other categories, such as education and poverty?

Seven of the ten least healthy states also ranked in the top ten poorest states, including Mississippi, which is both the poorest (according to current U.S. Census numbers) (2) and unhealthiest state this year. Mississippi ranked lowest in the country in math and science education.

According to the National Education Association, Mississippi spends about half of what the healthiest state, Vermont, spends on education. Mississippi ranks fifth to last at $6,237 per student annually, whereas Vermont ranks fourth from the top, at $11,128 per pupil. (3) (p.12)

This may seem like comparing apples to oranges, but the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a study implying a direct connection between education and health. According to the study, “The magnitude of the relationship between education and health varies across conditions, but is generally large. An additional four years of education lowers five-year mortality by 1.8 percentage points; it also reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percentage points, and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points. Four more years of schooling lowers the probability of reporting oneself in fair or poor health by 6 percentage points and reduces lost days of work to sickness by 2.3 each year. Although the effects of gender and race are not shown, the magnitude of four years of schooling is roughly comparable in size to being female or being African American. These are not trivial effects.” (4)

What does this mean?

Clearly these studies indicate a connection between investing in education and decreased health care costs, as well as decreased income equality, which would in turn improve education and therefore health. In fact, the NBER study (4) directly correlates each year of human life to a cash value and directly estimates the cash value of life lost through lack of education, if you are the kind of person who needs that sort of impetus to care about it. Regardless, it seems that people with more education are healthier and will cost less to care for in general. Education increases income which in turn increases access to health care, and education increases a person’s quality of life which also improves overall health, as the study implies:

“In terms of the relation between education and various health risk factors – smoking, drinking, diet/exercise, use of illegal drugs, household safety, use of preventive medical care, and care for hypertension and diabetes – overall the results suggest very strong gradients where the better educated have healthier behaviors along virtually every margin…” (5) (p.15)

According to the same National Education Association report: “Greater income equality, increased lower incomes, and reduced poverty rates all lead to other non-economic social benefits, such as reduced crime rates and improvements in the quality of life.” (5) (p.15)

In other words educated people make better health choices, have better access to care and cost their communities less. Educating people helps lift them from poverty, which also increases their access to health care, and in the end it costs less to have a higher minimum quality of life in the greatest country in the world. Investing in education will save money in the long run.

1. United Health Foundation, America’s Health Ratings, 2011.


3. Rankings of the States 2009 and Estimates of School Statistics 2010

4. The Effects of Education on Health, December 10, 2011

5. The Effects of State Public K-12 Education Expenditures On Income Distribution

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