In the United States, over 39 million people live in poverty. Although poverty affects all groups, it disproportionately affects those whose access to coping resources is most limited, i.e., ethnic minorities and children. Since the 1970s, poverty rates have risen steadily in this country, especially for children. Today more than 15 million poor American children face immediate and life-long risk to health, growth, and school achievement. This review considers risk in these areas and finds that poor children, especially African-American children, experience increased prevalence of low birthweight, chronic illness, and lead poisoning, with reduced levels and quality of healthcare. At the same time, poor children exhibit higher rates of low stature, particularly Mexican-American children, and overweight. Poor health and poor growth are likely to lead to poor school achievement via deficits in cognitive functioning, behavior and activity, and increased absenteeism and school failure. Biological anthropologists are in a unique position to contribute to the research on poor children in the U.S and to assist in clarifying the complex pattern that leads to intergenerational poverty. To this end, a number of areas are identified where ad-ditional and/or continued research is needed.
Poverty and social inequality
The gulf between the poor and rich of the world is widening. Within the UK, the financial gap between the wealthy and the poor is not narrowing and differences in health between social classes I and V are becoming greater (Smith et al, 1990). Poverty and social inequality have direct and indirect effects on the social, mental and physical well-being of an individual. It is important to note that poverty and inequality are closely linked. Wilkinson (1997) believed that income inequality produces psychosocial stress, which leads to deteriorating health and higher mortality over time. However, the association between income inequality and life expectancy is slowly disappearing and is no longer widely accepted. Those who live in deprived communities, where there is under-investment in the social and physical infrastructure, experience poor health, resulting in higher mortality for those of lower socio-economic class. The effects of income inequality also spill over into society, causing stress, frustration and family disruption, which then increase the rates of crime, homicide and violence (Wilkinson, 1996).
There are several obstacles, deficits and threats to health inherent in poverty. It is the poor who are exposed to dangerous environments, who (if employed) often have stressful, unrewarding and depersonalising work, who lack the necessities and amenities of life and who, because they are not part of the mainstream of society, are isolated from information and support. The inverse association between socio-economic level and risk of disease is one of the most pervasive and enduring observations in public health (Kaplan et al, 1987). It has been known for a long time that the lowest-income groups are more likely to suffer negative effects of ‘risky’ health behaviours than their less poor counterparts. These ‘maladaptive’ behaviours are not necessarily undertaken with a harmful intent, but may be regarded as coping behaviours to provide comfort or relief from stressful lives. Moreover, people in lower socio-economic classes by virtue of their life circumstances are exposed to more stressors, and with fewer resources to manage them and greater vulnerability to stressors, they are doubly victimised. Poverty is associated with many long-term problems, such as poor health and increased mortality, school failure, crime and substance misuse. The relationship between occupational class and mortality is evident from a survey in the 1970s, which showed that the mortality rate among men aged 20–64 years was almost twice as high for those in class V as for those in class I, and by the early 1990s it was almost three times as high