While health care is a major issue in the U.S. -- with our country experiencing poorer health outcomes and facing higher costs compared to any other developed nation -- poverty is actually one of our nation's most pivotal concerns.
Last week, the Census released new poverty and income data for 2012, showing more people are poor or near poor today than during 2008, the first full year of the recession.
Income and earnings have declined for most people other than the highest-income groups. Children and communities of color are disproportionately poor, and more households are paying more of their income on rent.
Alameda County's poverty rate has not improved since 2011, remaining at 13.1 percent, while Oakland's has risen from 21 percent to 22 percent.
All of these findings matter for the health of our communities.
At the same time, Congress is debating whether to further cut social safety net programs, with some threatening a government shutdown if vital programs are not slashed and the Affordable Care Act defunded.
As a local public health department, our role is to ensure the optimal health and well-being of our residents. When we see poverty increasing and social supports decreasing, we must speak up. Programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Head Start, unemployment benefits, and housing assistance are critical to early childhood health, which in turn lead to healthier adult lives, healthier communities, and significant savings in health care costs.
Numerous studies have shown that people in the U.S. with lower incomes tend to have poorer health compared to those with higher incomes. Our own analysis at Alameda County Public Health Department shows a 15-year difference in life expectancy for an African-American child born in low-income neighborhoods in West Oakland versus a white child born in higher-income neighborhoods in the Oakland Hills.
Affordable quality housing, access to nutritious food, safe places to play and exercise -- these neighborhood characteristics directly affect residents' ability to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.
ACPHD works at the intersection of these issues, bringing together health and community economic development. We realize that local economies must thrive to improve individual and neighborhood health.
To address the economic and health inequities that affect growing numbers of people and drag down prosperity for society as a whole, we must tackle the interrelated problems of poverty and poor health.
Anti-poverty programs are rarely described as health programs, but that is what they are. Without such an approach, we stand little chance to keep pace with widening health and economic inequities.
Not only must we protect safety net programs, we need more public and private investment to create shared economic growth. The health sector has become a promising new partner for community development that reduces inequities and builds opportunity for people and places.
Continuing or worsening the federal budget cuts to vital public services and further disinvesting from communities is the wrong direction to take.
We need to invest in real recovery for all people in the U.S. Because of this, we hope that more Alameda County residents, along with public agencies and the private sector, will collectively stop the attacks on public programs and instead focus our shared resources on community investment.
Dr. Muntu Davis is the Alameda County Health Officer and Public Health Department director.