Our choices for good health depend on our choices for everything else in life: a good education, safe and decent housing, a secure job that allows us to support our families.
What happens when those choices don’t exist? Ask Alpha Whitaker.
Whitaker, a single mom in Indianapolis who put herself through college, had to turn down a dream job because she didn’t have a safe way to get to work. Her bus route ended 10 blocks from the job, and she would have had to walk through a dangerous neighborhood — twice — every day.
In choosing safety, Whitaker gave up a job with full health benefits, a 401(k) plan to help her save for her daughter’s education, and a salary that would have allowed her family to move to a safer neighborhood. These things — financial security, health insurance, education, and neighborhood — influence health.
Fortunately, Indianapolis is one of many US communities working to create better choices for their residents in transportation, public safety, and employment. In doing so, they are creating better choices for health as well.
On the surface, the link might not be obvious. But as “Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity,” a new report from the National Academy of Medicine’s Culture of Health program shows, health equity and equal opportunity are inextricably linked. The report, commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, defines health equity as the state in which everyone has a chance to attain their full health potential.
Americans today live shorter, sicker lives than people in other developed countries. Across America, health varies by income, education, race and ethnicity, geography, sexual identity, and disability status. We pay a high price for these health disparities in lost lives, wasted potential, and squandered resources. They also affect national security: Some 26 million young adults are unqualified to serve in the United States military because of persistent health problems, poor education, or convictions for a felony. The report estimates that racial health disparities are projected to cost health insurers $337 billion between 2009 and 2018.
“Communities in Action” spotlights how communities are working together to create pathways to health equity. By addressing factors well beyond access to health insurance, cities like Indianapolis, Buffalo, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Los Angeles are seeding the conditions needed to enjoy full, healthy lives.
Take the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), a multiracial, multifaith group that took on limited access to bus routes. That transportation issue created barriers to good jobs and opportunity. Working with a variety of stakeholders, including the residents most affected, IndyCAN helped pass a regional transit referendum to triple bus service in Indianapolis, fuel economic development, and increase access to jobs. Because all residents understood that improved bus service would benefit everyone in the community in a range of ways, the referendum passed last November — with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce as a leading champion.
This is just one example of what a community can do to promote health equity. “Communities in Action” explores many other efforts to curb violence, boost education, improve social connectedness, and expand access to healthy foods — all of which create the opportunity for healthier lives. Although their approaches differ, these community efforts consistently bring a shared vision for promoting health equity, building and harnessing community capacity, and involving many different sectors to enlist broad buy-in.
That buy-in is, to put it bluntly, the point. Americans tend to think of health as an individual responsibility. That’s true, to a point. But that’s not where responsibility ends. The responsibility for promoting health, and equitable opportunities to achieve it, lies with all of us.
Many Americans are living in a time of need, or are weighed down by the burden of a divided nation. But whether you live in a Rust Belt community where jobs are scarce or an urban area with limited transit, choices matter.
Alpha Whitaker deserved a better choice, as do millions of her countrymen and countrywomen. If we want Americans to lead healthy, productive lives, we need to ensure that they have the opportunities to do so. The time to reduce health disparities is now, before their personal effects and costs spiral out of control.
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Victor Dzau, MD, is president of the National Academy of Medicine.