Is poverty an environmental issue? Depends on who you ask

In a broad sense, the term “environmental issue” is usually synonymous with topics like climate change, endangered & invasive species, or plastic use. Those are grand and incredibly complex subjects, though, and for a low-income or minority U.S. family that is struggling to get by, they don’t necessarily strike a chord. When you’re spending most of your time wondering how to pay the bills, the plight of the rainforest just isn’t something you have time to worry about.

For these groups, more local environmental problems like flooding in a nearby park or the dumping of toxic waste in a field close to home, are the issues that matter. 

Let’s pull on that string a bit further. Lower-income families and individuals are more likely to face the brunt of these problems; richer households don’t visit public parks nearly as often as poorer individuals and no one is letting trash build up in gated communities. So, while the middle and upper classes don’t typically see poverty, racism, inequality, and education as environmental issues, those on the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole often do. For such groups, it’s these societal issues that have thrust local environmental problems on their shoulders.

Is poverty an environmental issue?

It’s a complicated, cultural problem, and one that most of us probably never even considered. Even this study’s authors, from Cornell University, didn’t expect to uncover these results when they started interviewing Latino community members in San Antonio, Texas on their environmental concerns in 2017.

“They started bringing up things that don’t typically come up in environmental studies,” says Neil Lewis Jr., assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a press release. “So we decided to conduct a survey to see if this was something unique to the group in San Antonio, or if it’s a broader phenomenon.”

That survey, which consisted of 1,100 U.S. residents, found major demographic differences regarding how people interpret and define environmental issues. Racial and ethnic minorities, as well as lower-income households, are much more likely to consider issues like poverty and racism as environmental, besides more obvious ecological concerns like air pollution.

“The racial minority and low-income participants in our sample reach different conclusions about what counts as an environmental issue from our whiter and wealthier participants,” Lewis explains. “And the reason we think this is happening is because of the differences in where people live. Given the nature of stratification and segregation in the U.S., minorities tend to live in places with more exposure to environmental hazards. And so it’s easier to see that these other issues in society, like poverty and racism, are likely to affect environmental outcomes.”

These findings are especially important as our society continues to struggle with how to address so many of these environmental concerns. If the U.S. public can’t even agree on what these problems are, it’s going to be that much harder to form a united front in addressing them. Moreover, just like in so many other aspects of life and society, lower-income families are often left out in the cold when it comes to environmental decisions and policies. 

“You could go out and talk about climate change and invasive species, but those might not be what really counts as the leading environmental issues for the communities you want to reach,” comments senior author Jonathon Schuldt, an associate professor of communication at Cornell. “For certain communities, the most pressing environmental issue might be the flooding that prevents their kids from enjoying the city park. It might be related to drug use. So I think this work can reorient our thinking about how to inspire engagement.”

Survey respondents were presented with 18 issues, ranging from industrial pollution, lead in tap water, and climate change to diabetes, obesity, and local grocery store access. For each topic, participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven how much they considered it an environmental problem. Demographic data for each respondent was also collected, including age, sex, household income, and ZIP code.

There were some observed differences among racial groups. That being said, the most prominent fluctuation was that members of marginalized communities were much more likely to view factors like unemployment and drug use as environmental. Overall, these individuals clearly have a much broader view of what constitutes an environmental issue, especially in comparison to white people with a higher-income.

“The conventional wisdom is, we have multiple sets of issues in our society,” Lewis concludes. “We have environmental issues like climate change, and we have inequality issues like poverty and racism. And these are things that are in separate buckets. But there is a set of people who know that these are all intertwined, and we should look at them together in a more holistic way.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.