“More Columbus Kids Living in Poverty,” the headline said. New data from the Ohio Department of Education showed that three-fourths of schoolchildren in Columbus, Ohio, live in poverty or near poverty and qualify for federally subsidized school lunch. Ten years earlier, only about 58 percent of Columbus children qualified. According to the news report, “Childhood poverty directly impacts children’s health. Children living in poverty are less likely to receive needed medical care, more likely to have health problems such as asthma, more likely to be overweight, among other health problems.”
Source: Lietz, 2012Lietz, J. (2012, January 17). More Columbus kids living in poverty. Examiner.com. Retrieved from http://www.examiner.com/children-s-health-in-columbus/more-columbus-kids-living-poverty.
This news story reminds us that social class is linked to health and illness, and it illustrates just one of the many ways in which health and health care are urgent problems in our society. Accordingly, this chapter examines these problems. Its discussion is based on the common sociological view that health and illness are not just medical problems but social problems.
Unlike physicians, sociologists and other public health scholars do not try to understand why any one person becomes ill. Instead, they typically examine rates of illness to explain why people from certain social backgrounds are more likely than those from others to become sick. Here, as we will see, our social backgrounds—our social class, race and ethnicity, and gender—make a critical difference.
The fact that our social backgrounds affect our health may be difficult for many of us to accept. We all know someone who has died from a serious illness or currently suffers from one. There is always a medical cause of this person’s illness, and physicians do their best to try to cure it and prevent it from recurring. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail. Whether someone suffers a serious illness is often simply a matter of bad luck or bad genes: We can do everything right and still become ill. In saying that our social backgrounds affect our health, sociologists do not deny any of these possibilities. They simply remind us that our social backgrounds also play an important role (Cockerham, 2012).Cockerham, W. C. (2012). Medical sociology (12th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
With this basic understanding in mind, we now turn to sociological perspectives on health and health care.