Research Shows Obesity Declines Among Rich US Teens, Rises Among Poor

January 15, 2014
by Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

Rising economic disparity in the United States is now increasingly impacting the health of its children. New research co-authored by Carl B. Frederick, a Saguaro Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow; Kaisa Snellman, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD; and Robert D. Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), reveals that obesity rates have fallen among children of educated parents but have continued to rise among children of less wealthy, less educated parents.

The study, “Increasing Socioeconomic Disparities in Adolescent Obesity” was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This research is part of a larger project on growing youth inequality in America, conducted under the auspices of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard Kennedy School.

Recent years have brought hopeful news in the fight against the growing obesity epidemic among American children -- adolescent obesity rates have plateaued overall. But the new study suggests that the good news is limited to those from better educated, wealthy families. Obesity has continued to rise among teenagers from less educated, poorer families.

“Until 2002, obesity rates increased at similar rates for all adolescents," the researchers argue, “but since then, obesity has begun to decline among higher socioeconomic status (SES) youth but continued to increase among lower SES youth.” Today, one in four children from less educated families is obese compared to one in 14 children with college educated parents.

Analyzing caloric intake and exercise patterns, the researchers found that physical activity may account largely for the divergent trend in obesity between wealthy and poor adolescents. While calorie consumption has decreased among all teens, differences in physical activity have increased in the last ten years. The study finds that one in five kids from less educated, poor families report not having exercised or having played sports for at least 20 minutes sometime in the last seven days. By contrast, only one in ten kids with college educated parents report similar levels of physical inactivity.

“Low-income neighborhoods have fewer playgrounds, sidewalks, and recreational facilities,” they write. Furthermore, “Participation in high school sports and clubs has increased among high SES adolescents while decreasing among their low SES peers.”

Frederick, Snellman and Putnam call for more vigorous government support and targeted programs to fight the child obesity epidemic. “Eliminating socioeconomic disparities in health outcomes is a key public policy priority,” they write.

Carl B. Frederick is a post-doctoral fellow at HKS. Kaisa Snellman, a former post-doctoral fellow at HKS, is Assistant Professor in Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, where she teaches Power and Politics and Organizational Theory. Robert Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at HKS, and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses. Putnam is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. In 2006, Putnam received the Skytte Prize, one of the world's highest accolades for a political scientist, and in 2012, the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities.

Professor Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy

Frederick, Snellman and Putnam call for more vigorous government support and targeted programs to fight the child obesity epidemic. “Eliminating socioeconomic disparities in health outcomes is a key public policy priority,” they write.


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