Twenty-six years ago, I wrote a Reader article about cancer in Chicago—”Poverty is a carcinogen.” It was the story of a 59-year-old African-American woman who was dying of cancer, and spending her final days in a tiny west-side apartment. Cancer had made her blacker and poorer: chemotherapy had darkened her skin, and cancer and chemo together had weakened her until she could no longer work, and then became bedridden. She had no savings; there were final notices and shutoff warnings from Com Ed on a chair next to her bed, and she was borrowing money from friends to pay her rent.
I noted in the story that cancer was only one of the menaces to health and longevity that afflict the urban poor more than others: there were also infant mortality, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cirrhosis, schizophrenia, accidents, and murders. From low birth weight to high blood pressure, being poor was hazardous to one’s health. The health of blacks was also far worse than the health of whites, and the evidence indicted poverty more than race for this disparity—blacks’ health was inferior because they more often were poor.