Obesity,Sprawl and Poverty, Part 2

MLewyn's picture

Last week, I blogged about the relationship between sprawl and poverty, using metro Atlanta as an example.  I showed that in Fulton and DeKalb Counties (the two most urban, transit-friendly counties in the region) the obesity rate was only slightly higher than the poverty rate, while in more suburban counties the obesity rate was MUCH higher than the poverty rate.  I interpret this data to mean that nonpoor people are probably more likely to be fat in the suburbs of Atlanta than in more urban areas.

Having said that, metro Atlanta might be an aberration, since many of Atlanta's most affluent suburbs are in Fulton and DeKalb Counties.  A more accurate measurement would compares cities with suburbs more directly.

Fortunately, there are regions where cities are their own counties. (See here for all kinds of data).  I started with St. Louis, which has an exceptionally poor central city.  In St. Louis, the poverty rate is 26% while the obesity rate is 33.9% - a 7.9% gap.  In next-door St. Louis County, the poverty rate is much lower (9.7%) while the obesity rate is almost as high as in the city (29%)- a 19.3% gap.  And in well-off exurban St. Charles County, the poverty rate is even lower (4.9%) while the obesity rate is comparable to St. Louis County (29.7%)- almost a 25 point gap.  In other words, as you move out from the urban core the poverty rate nosedives while the obesity rate barely budges- evidence, it seems to me, that (assuming there is a poverty/obesity connection) if St. Louis city was richer it would probably be thinner than its suburbs, or if St. Louis County had as many poor people as St. Louis its' residents auto-dependent lifestyle would make them more likely to obese.  

Then I looked at Philadelphia, which had a somewhat similar pattern; the city's obesity rate is higher than that of its suburbs (31.5% for the city, 21-27% for Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Bucks Counties).  But the poverty/obesity gap is much smaller for the city.  In Philadelphia, the poverty rate is 25.6% and the obesity rate is 31.5%- a 5.9% gap.  By contrast, in the suburban counties the poverty rate ranged from 5.1% (Chester) to 9.5% (Delaware), yielding gaps of about 14-20%.  For example, exurban Chester County had a obesity rate of 21.2% and a poverty rate of only 6.7%, a 14.5% gap (though unlike St. Louis exurbs, Chester County had a poverty/obesity gap slightly lower than that of inner suburban counties). 

What about where the central city is a bit more affluent?  San Francisco is also its own county, and has only a slightly higher poverty rate than most suburban counties.  (The city's poverty rate is 12.3 percent; Marin and San Mateo Counties have poverty rates around 7%, and Contra Costa County's poverty rate is around 10%).  Of these three suburban counties, two (San Mateo and Contra Costa) have obesity rates higher than San Francisco, despite having less poverty.   Marin has less obesity than San Francisco, but even here the poverty/obesity gap is lower in the city.  San Francisco has 12.3% poverty and 17.1% obesity (a 4.8% gap) and Marin has 7.2% poverty and 15.3% obesity (an 8.1% gap).  

Then I looked at New York, since it is the only city where the central city itself is divided into different counties, so that the most urban part of the city is a separate county from the city's more suburban zones.  In the most urban, walkable county (New York County, aka Manhattan) the poverty rate is actually higher than the obesity rate (17.6 poverty, 15.1 obesity); this is also the case in the Bronx (28.4% poverty 27.5% obesity).  In Brooklyn, which is a little less dense, the poverty rate is 2.4% lower than the obesity rate (22.1% poverty 24.5% obesity).  In Queens, which has many car-dominated neighborhoods but also many transit-oriented ones, the poverty/obesity gap is 9.1%, comparable to many American central cities outside New York (13.6% poverty 22.4% obesity).  

What about New York's suburbs?  If the pattern discussed above holds, New York's suburbs would have poverty/obesity gaps higher than those of any New York borough.   On Long Island, this was very much the case.  Nassau County has only a 5.2% poverty rate, but a 21.3% obesity rate- a 16 point gap.  Exurban Suffolk County had an even bigger gap, with a poverty rate comparable to that of Nassau (5.7%) but a higher obesity rate (25.6%).  

North of the city, a somewhat similar pattern existed, but with a slight twist.  Westchester County had a 8.9% poverty rate and a obesity rate of 17.3%- only an 8.4% gap, comparable to that of Queens.  But more exurban Putnam County looked like the rest of American suburbia, with a 5.4% poverty rate and a obesity rate of 28.7%, higher than that of any other New York-area county, urban or suburban, discussed above.


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