In Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, residents suffer and get sick

"These are major life events, different than every-day stresses," says Katherine King. "It's bigger than having your car towed. These are life-changes that could lead to anxiety or depression." (Credit: Jon Seidman/Flickr)

For people living in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, misfortune can come in many forms—from a mugging to a job loss to the death of a loved one—and the stress involved often leads to anxiety, depression, and other illnesses, new research shows.

“If you live in a poor Chicago neighborhood, bad things are more likely to happen to you,” says sociologist Katherine King, a visiting assistant professor of community and family medicine at Duke University. “Small, everyday stresses have long been linked to poverty. But our findings suggest that huge, life-altering traumas, while infrequent, affect the poor to an inordinate degree and lead to a lot of health problems.”

King coauthored the study published in PLOS ONE with Christin Ogle, a postdoctoral fellow in Duke’s psychology and neuroscience department.

The findings build on previous research that connects poverty with bad health by linking illnesses and a collection of life-changing negative events.

The study, based on the surveys of 3,105 Chicagoans in 343 city neighborhoods, examined data on 15 life-changing events like being assaulted or robbed, getting divorced, getting into legal trouble, and having a child die.

“These are major life events, different than every-day stresses,” King says. “It’s bigger than having your car towed. These are life-changes that could lead to anxiety or depression.”


The study finds that residents of poorer neighborhoods who reported one or more of these life-changing events were more likely to also have serious health issues. The reasons are complex, King says. Many of the traumatic events involve exposure to risk, like burglary, legal trouble, or an ill or dying child.


Other events involve a lack of resources, like a lost job or long-term illness. And when an entire neighborhood is poor, the risks are more concentrated and resources are harder to access, which is why people struggle to find a new job or get treatment for an illness, King adds.

Chicago was chosen for this study because a great deal of neighborhood research has been conducted there and the city has significant pockets of immigrants to draw data from, King says. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, and Polish to reflect the city’s diversity.

“It’s a Midwestern Ellis Island,” she says.

Her study data come from the Chicago Community Adult Health Study, which was conducted in 2001-03 by University of Michigan researchers and funded by the National Institutes of Health. The Environmental Protection Agency funds King’s work, and National Institutes of Health funds Ogle’s work.

Source: Duke University