“In short, we urge the nation’s leaders to embrace the idea that an economically vibrant and sustainable American future depends, almost wholly, on a broader vision for equity, one that recognizes that lifting up the least of us will lift up all of us.”
Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future; Blackwell, Kwoh, Pastor; 2010.
At CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (OMHHE), we are winding up the celebration of our 25th anniversary. The centerpiece of our celebration has been an exhibit at CDC’s David J. Sencer Museum titled “Health Is a Human Right: Race and Place in America.” The exhibit was designed to “show the faces” behind the data, contextualize health disparities within community-driven social movements and the social determinants of health1, and highlight strategic federal initiatives implemented to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities over the past 120 years. Since its opening at the end of September 2013, more than 21,000 people have visited the exhibit. Through the exhibit, we attempt to share some of the histories of African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, and Native Hawaiians & Other Pacific Islanders, and selected events that contributed to the historical patterning of health disparities in communities of color. There are examples of community interventions and policy initiatives that have contributed to better health outcomes in these communities. Yet, as the exhibit demonstrates, good health is not achieved in a vacuum.
History has taught us that good health comes with receiving high quality education and health care, clean air and water, employment and a living wage, access to healthy foods, living in a safe and nurturing environment, and demonstrating respect for all peoples and cultures. A popular adage is “If we don’t know our history, we are destined to repeat it.” What do we need to do differently to once and for all close the gap in health outcomes? As we position the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity for even greater impact in 2014, our efforts will be informed by lessons learned from the past, the impending public health needs of an increasingly diverse U.S. population, and opportunities to reduce health disparities through implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
There are two significant historical moments we share at this writing – the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty (Economic Opportunity Act of 1964) and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These landmark policy and legislative acts occurred in response to economic and political inequities ̶ not unlike those experienced by many Americans today.
President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to the dire need for change in his speech to Congress proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty.
He called for specific action. His objective for the War on Poverty was “total victory.”
President Johnson acknowledged the collective benefit of eliminating poverty when he said, “We do it also because helping some will increase the prosperity of all.” We believe that, similarly, eliminating health disparities is good for the overall health and prosperity of the nation. OMHHE’s objective is to eliminate preventable health disparities.
The War on Poverty was intended to “… strike[s] at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” In the same way, public health action on the social determinants of health inequities strikes at the root causes of health disparities.
President Johnson reminded the Congress that “The most enduring strength of our nation is the huge reservoir of talent, initiative and leadership which exists at every level of our society.” Still true today, we are reminded that the growing diversity of our nation has expanded the pool of talent in the U.S. from which we can recruit a diverse, well trained public health workforce to achieve the mission of public health.
In 25 years of action to improve minority health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pioneered cutting edge public health research and practice through cooperative agreements, demonstration projects, and partnerships with state and local health departments, academic institutions, and community-based organizations, to name a few. We will continue to provide leadership and support population-based approaches to reduce health disparities.
Recently, CDC’s Office of Women’s Health, and Diversity and Inclusion Management joined the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. This strategic realignment allows us to further elevate attention to women’s health issues across population groups and ensure a work environment that benefits fully from the diverse talent, initiative and leadership that is present in the emerging public health workforce. We will also strengthen collaborations in 2014 with public and private stakeholders to identify concrete and actionable strategies to address the social determinants of health. Stay tuned. Get involved with the HHS, National Partnership for Action. Together, we can end this persistent pattern of health disparities.
1 Social determinants of health are conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.