How neighborhood affluence affects heat wave deaths

In describing which residents are more affected by heat waves, a newspaper piece cities a sociological study and misses the bigger picture by emphasizing whether there is a shopping district nearby:

People who live in areas without “inviting” businesses are more at risk of dying. A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review looked at the 1995 heat wave in Chicago and found that mortality rates were higher in areas where businesses were not well tended and leaned toward the bar-and-liquor-store variety.

With fewer businesses that could coax the elderly and other at-risk residents out of their homes and into the safety of air-conditioning, death rates rise, the study authors found.

What is the lesson here: move to a neighborhood with well-kept stores in order to reduce one’s risk of dying in a heat wave? On the whole, it isn’t really the stores that matter: it is about the overall affluence of the neighborhood which then affects the stores. People living in neighborhood with fewer stores are also more likely to be in places with less resources and perhaps less social services. The newspaper is presenting some data without providing a deeper look at the underlying relationship between these two factors.

Then, perhaps fighting the effects of heat waves goes far beyond opening swimming pools and “cooling centers.” Even as many cities have developed plans to deal with heat waves, including Chicago which was hit hard by a 1995 heat wave, it is part of larger structural issues that dictate which neighborhoods have resources and which do not.

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