New research has determined that teens are susceptible to poor health when they are subjected to social-class discrimination.
Dr. Thomas Fuller-Rowell, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that while the link between poverty and poor health has long been known, this is one of the first studies to consider the impact of class discrimination.
The finding that discrimination can be detrimental tp physiological health is discussed in the online publication Psychological Science.
“The findings of our study suggest that the stress caused by social-class discrimination may be an important factor in explaining the negative influence of poverty on health,” said Fuller-Rowell.
The study looked at 17-year-olds from upstate New York enrolled in a long-running Cornell University study of rural poverty. The vast majority of the 252 teens were white, so the study did not look at the effect of race.
“Experiences of discrimination are often subtle rather than blatant, and the exact reason for unfair treatment is often not clear to the victim,” said Fuller-Rowell.
As such, researchers asked study participants if they had experienced discrimination specifically based on their class background. For example, they were asked: “How often do people treat you differently because of your background?”
Then researchers took overnight urine samples, and other tests to assess stress on the body, including measures of blood pressure and stress-related hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.
This comprehensive panel of body factors measures a person’s “allostatic load,” a term that describes the negative health changes caused by frequent exposure to stress.
Researchers discovered teenagers who grew up in poverty reported higher levels of discrimination, and that discrimination, in turn, predicted allostatic load.
In other words, the poorer the teens, the more they experienced discrimination, the worse their health measures were. Fuller-Rowell’s model suggests that about 13 percent of the negative health effects of poverty on health can be attributed to perceived discrimination.
“Our findings suggest that the stigma associated with poverty can lead to class discrimination, which, over time, can impact an individual’s health,” Fuller-Rowell said.
This line of investigation is geared to help researchers learn the impact of social class discrimination on the poor – a concept that has not been thoroughly addressed. Furthermore, discussion of social class discrimination is generally not present in the public discourse in the same way as racial discrimination.
Experts believe the findings may help to develop strategies to help poor children cope with discrimination.
In the same way minority children are often alerted by their parents to possible racial discrimination they may encounter, Fuller-Rowell said, all Americans may need to get better at talking about class discrimination and its effects.
“Americans tend not to be comfortable talking about social class, because this is supposed to be a class-less country,” he says. “But in terms of mitigating the effects of class discrimination, talking about it in schools and in the media is a beginning.”