The Messy, Messy Relationship Between Income (and Race) and Obesity

The groups with the lowest obesity rates? The richest white women and the poorest black men.

The irony of obesity is that, according to conventional wisdom, it's a disease for poor people in rich countries. Around the world, the countries with the highest estimated obesity rates include the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada, Finland, Argentina, Chile and Mexico—except for the last two, all wealthy countries with GDP per capita above $30,000.

But within the U.S., the relationship between obesity and income is more complicated, according to a new Pew Research Survey.

Pew looked at obesity rates by race along three earnings groups—130% of the poverty level; 130%-349% of poverty level; more than 350% of poverty level (poverty calculations here). Here are the results...

Poorer women are the most likely to be obese among all ethnicities. But there are a few counter-intuitive surprises here. The richest men were, overall, more likely to be obese than the poorest groups. The groups with the lowest rates of obesity were rich white women and poor black men. Obesity rises with income for black and Hispanic men, but it falls with income for black and Hispanic women. The relationship is clearly more complicated than "a disease for poor people in a rich country."

As the House pushes a bill to cut food stamps by $40 billion, there's been greater attention paid to the relationship between food stamps, poverty, and obesity. The debate can be crudely summed up as: Are we paying poor people to become obese. The evidence suggests the answer is no. "There’s no clear evidence that food stamps contribute to obesity for most of the program's participants," Olga Kazan wrote, and a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture's review found that food stamps didn't increase obesity among children or men, but adult women are "2 to 5 percent more likely to become obese if they received food stamps for more than a year."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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