Environmental Quality
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The state of the natural and built environments that people interact with in their daily lives can affect health and well-being. Poor environmental quality factors, such as poor air quality, extreme heat, vulnerability to disasters, or exposure to toxic wastes, can be barriers to mobility and exacerbate the effects of poverty.

Evidence of the Relationship between Predictor and Related Outcomes

  • Compared to people with higher incomes, those in lower-income families and living in lower-income neighborhoods are more exposed to toxic wastes and environmental hazards (Fothergill and Peek 2002; Greenberg 2016). For example, a 2010 study finds that in areas of high impact from accidental releases of hazardous materials, 11.7 percent of families had incomes below the federal poverty level whereas in low-impact areas, only 5.5 percent had incomes below the federal poverty level (p < .01). Greenberg (2016) found that neighborhoods closest to coal impoundments in Appalachia had slightly higher poverty and unemployment rates than other neighborhoods. More broadly, low-income groups, people of color, and working-class people have suffered disproportionately from exposure to criteria pollutants (which include particle pollution, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and lead) as well as toxic emissions from waste generation, storage, and disposal facilities (Margai 2010; Taylor 2014). Further, sites for remediation and cleanup activities near these populations have typically not been prioritized (Margai 2010).
  • Environmental quality, both in terms of the natural and the built environment, is associated with vulnerability to disasters. People with low incomes are more exposed than people with higher incomes to disasters because of poorer environmental quality (i.e., exposure to toxic wastes) and factors such as place and type of residence, building construction, and social exclusion (Fothergill and Peek 2002). Studies have shown that low-income populations are disproportionally affected by natural hazards and disasters (Fothergill and Peek 2002; Hallegette et. al 2020). Losses from disasters are more pervasive for those with lower socioeconomic status who lack the financial resources and influence needed to cope with shocks. People with incomes below the federal poverty level are more likely to be financially devastated by a disaster, so their subsistence and long-term prospects are more threatened by disasters (Fothergill and Peek 2002; Hallegatte et al. 2020). For example, hurricane victims with the lowest incomes experience the greatest proportionate losses to their housing. Moreover, although middle- and high-income professionals tend to be able to collect paychecks throughout crises, lower-income workers earning hourly wages, such as those working in service-oriented jobs, typically cannot continue to work during a crisis, and the lack of resources needed to cope with disasters may intensify previous economic stress problems faced by those experiencing poverty (Fothergill and Peek 2002).
  • Studies suggest that lower levels of prenatal pollution exposures are associated with better educational and economic mobility outcomes. For example, one study finds that a one-standard-deviation decrease in the mean pollution level in a student’s year of birth is associated with 1.87 percent of a standard deviation increase in test scores in high school (Sanders 2011). Another study finds that the total suspended particle concentration in a person’s year of birth is negatively associated with later income among children born at or below the 25th percentile household-income threshold. A standard deviation increase in total suspended particle concentration in the birth year is associated with a 0.14-point reduction in the mean income percentile rank that low-income children achieve in adulthood, equivalent to a household income that is lower by $140 a year (O’Brien et al. 2018). Meanwhile, research examining the long-term impacts of early childhood exposure to air pollution on adult outcomes finds a causal link between pollution level in the birth year and lower earnings and reduced labor-force participation at age 30 (Isen et al. 2017).
  • Research shows that poor air quality is associated with poor health outcomes. For example, one study found that 23.6 percent of low-birth-weight cases and 6.8 percent of incident lung cancer cases were attributable to air pollution (95 percent confidence interval, 3.1–10.1 percent) (Morelli et al. 2016). Exposure to air pollution is also linked to increased hospitalizations of children for asthma. A study uses the CalEnviroScreen, a measure of environmental and social indicators that are theorized to have cumulative health impacts on a population, and found that a one-unit increase in the CalEnviroScreen Score was associated with an increase of 1.6 percent above the mean rate of pediatric asthma hospitalizations (Alcala et al. 2019). Further, research finds that poverty and air pollution are linked to an increased risk of conflict and violence, and that poverty- and air pollution–related stress affect cognitive function (Kristiansson et al. 2015).
  • A growing number of correlational studies link prenatal exposure to air particulate matter with negative health and development outcomes (O’Brien et al. 2018).
  • Research shows that neighborhoods where 90 percent or more of residents are experiencing poverty have 41 percent less tree canopy than in neighborhoods where only 10 percent or less of the population is experiencing poverty (Cusick 2021). Another Phoenix-based study finds that warmer neighborhoods were more likely to be home to people of lower socioeconomic status and to people of color and that people in warmer neighborhoods were found to have fewer social and material resources to cope with extreme heat and therefore have higher climatic-related health risks (Harlan 2006). When it comes to heat-related health risks, people who are poor, sick, or very young or old, and people working intensely in high heat exposure are most at risk. Workers in the agriculture and construction industries—both industries that employ low-wage workers in the US—can be affected by heat stress (Nilsson and Kjellstrom 2010).

How Investments Can Influence the Predictor at State or Local Levels

Communities can invest in projects to reduce exposure to dangerous environmental hazards and invest in projects to increase security for vulnerable populations against natural disasters. For example, communities can invest in technologies such as those in the transportation sector that could reduce air pollution (Georgetown Climate Center 2021). They can also expand and develop green spaces such as urban forest patches to improve the environments where those in poverty live and work (Panagopoulos, Duque, and Dan 2016). Similarly, communities expanding new development can prioritize developers with sustainable plans and green strategies. Finally, they can increase protection to their residents by making investments in factors that reduce the consequences of natural events such as better flooding infrastructure (Junod et al. 2021).

The US Environmental Protection Agency shares case studies of actions being taken at the local level to finance projects to replace lead service lines (EPA 2021). Localities can take actions to replace lead pipes to homes that connect to water mains to help reduce residents’ lead intake.


The primary reference is marked with an asterisk.

Alcala, Emanuel, Paul Brown, John A. Capitman, Mariaelena Gonzalez, and Ricardo Cisneros. 2019. “Cumulative Impact of Environmental Pollution and Population Vulnerability on Pediatric Asthma Hospitalizations: A Multilevel Analysis of CalEnviroScreen.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16 (15): 2683.

Cusick, Daniel. 2021. “Trees Are Missing in Low-Income Neighborhoods.” E&E News, June 21.

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). 2021. “LSLR Financing Case Studies.” Last updated December 14..

*Fothergill, Alice, and Lori A. Peek. 2002. “Poverty and Disasters in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Findings.” Natural Hazards 32: 89–110.

Georgetown Climate Center. 2021. “Transportation.” Georgetown Law, accessed May 13, 2022.

Greenberg, Pierce. 2016. “Disproportionality and Resource-Based Environmental Inequality: An Analysis of Neighborhood Proximity to Coal Impoundments in Appalachia.” Rural Sociology 82 (1).

Hallegatte, Stephanie, Adrien Vogt-Schilb, Julie Rozenberg, Mook Bangalore, and Chloe Beaudet. 2020. “Economics of Disasters and Climate Change. From Poverty to Disaster and Back: A Review of the Literature.” Economics of Disasters and Climate Change.

Harlan. 2006. “Neighborhood Microclimates and Vulnerability to Heat Stress.” Social Science & Medicine 63 (11): 2847–63.

Hernandez, Trish, and Susan Gabbard. 2018. “Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2015-2016: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers.” Research report 13. JNS International, Inc.

Isen, Adam, Maya Rossin-Slate, and Reed W. Walker. 2017. “Every Breath You Take—Every Dollar You’ll Make: The Long-Term Consequences of the Clean Air Act of 1970.” Journal of Political Economy 125 (3).

Junod, Anne N., Carlos Martín, Rebecca Marx, and Amy Rogin. 2021. “Equitable Investments in Resilience: A Review of Benefit-Cost Analysis in Federal Flood Mitigation Infrastructure.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Kristiansson, Marianne, Karolina Sörman, Carmen Tekwe, and Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas. 2015. “Urban Air Pollution, Poverty, Violence and Health – Neurological and Immunological Aspects as Mediating Factors.” Environmental Research 140: 511–3.

Margai, Florence Lansana. 2010. “Health Risks and Environmental Inequity: A Geographical Analysis of Accidental Releases of Hazardous Materials.” Professional Geographer 53 (3): 422–34.

Morelli, Xavier, Camille Rieux, Josef Cyrys, Bertil Forsberg, and Rémy Slama. 2016. “Air Pollution, Health and Social Deprivation: A Fine-Scale Risk Assessment.” Environmental Research 147: 59–70.

Nilsson, Maria, and Tord Kjellstrom. 2010. “Climate Change Impacts on Working People: How to Develop Prevention Policies.” Global Health Action 2010 (3).

O’Brien, Rourke L., Tiffany Neman, Kara Rudolph, Joan Casey, and Atheendar Venkataramani. 2018. “Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollution and Intergenerational Economic Mobility: Evidence from U.S. County Birth Cohorts.” Social Science and Medicine 217: 92–96.

Panagopoulos, Thomas, Jose Antonio Gonzalez Duque, and Maria Bostenaru Dan. 2016. “Urban Planning with Respect to Environmental Quality and Human Well-Being.” Environmental Pollution 208 (A): 137–44.

Sanders, Nicholas J. 2011. “What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Weaker: Prenatal Pollution Exposure and Educational Outcomes.” Journal of Human Resources.

Taylor, Dorceta E. 2014. “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility.” New York: New York University Press.

Healthy Environment and Access to Good Health Care

Related outcome: Stable and healthy living environment; good physical health

Mobility dimension engaged: Being valued in community

Person in wheel chair illustration