Too Rich or Too Thin

An obvious and discouraging aspect of American inequality is the increasing association between obesity and low income, including among children. Here, for example, is median income by BMI and mean BMI by income for the 3rd and 4th graders in the ECLS-K: 2011 cohort (who finished 4th grade in 2015):



This is equally apparent at a school level- overweight students are on average in schools with a higher percentage of students receiving free lunch (ie, low income)


As with many aspects of American inequality, these relationships mirror but are not entirely due to racial differences and changing demography: lower income groups are on average higher BMI, but within each group, upper income households also have lower BMI children, on average:


Going along with these patterns, perhaps, some recent research suggests girls in upper income, more highly educated, and more highly female schools are more likely to develop an eating disorder, suggesting that in those settings the social pressure to be thin may be strongest:


Among adults, as well, a larger percentage of upper income than lower income men and women (and a larger percentage of women than men) had tried to lose weight:


Obesity is perhaps uniquely visible among negative signals of social status, even as the combination of  quantity and type of our diet, sedentary media use, and diminished outdoor play appear to be highly obesogenic for children as well as American adults.

It is possible (particularly as lower income women’s birth rates have declined fastest in the last few years) that aggregate childhood obesity rates will plateau or even decline. I’d be skeptical, though, that its association with status and income will weaken anytime soon.

5 thoughts on “Too Rich or Too Thin

  1. Go to Walmart.

    Then Publix.

    Then Whole Foods.

    Then an upscale (25$+/entree) restaurant in a city.

    Crazy to see the visible difference in average BMI.

    And IME BMI differences in school only widen later in life. There are definitely a decent # of fat kids and a few really fat kids– but by the time people get to their 30’s, the class differences in obesity really become startling. Not sure how well supported by evidence that is, but that’s the impression I get.


    1. Ever been to a food pantry? There is typically only one skinny person there, and they look like a drug user. Of course, the food they usually give out (which is still good but past its expiration date) is also the kind that is the worst for you, with lots of refined sugar, which compounds the problem.


      1. When I volunteered at a homeless shelter they said they only wanted this kind of processed high carb/sugar stuff. If you offer the homeless vegetables they will reject it and demand the crap food because it’s what they like. None seemed like they were starving or anything.


  2. Robin Hanson claims that the poor are more likely to overweight but also more likely to underweight making it look like: “there being a small fraction of “broken” folks who tend both to have low abilities to earn money, and to have an unhealthy weight, both too high and too low.”
    It could also be that unhealthy weight, both too high and too low have trouble finding high paying jobs due to there health or appearance.


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