Now Viewing: Health Disparities

Connecting Systems to Build Health Equity During COVID-19

Dec 10, 2020, 9:30 AM, Posted by Chris Lyttle

Demonstration sign.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in July 2020.

A Personal Journey

It's hard to describe water to a fish while it’s swimming in it. I was that fish, growing up in a working-class, majority Black community in southwest Ohio. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me to question why my school had metal detectors and armed police officers at every entrance yet so few textbooks that students had no choice but to share. Or why we had to travel to find affordable fresh vegetables while unhealthy food nearby was as easily accessible as  payday loans and other predatory financial products. Having unmet needs was normal in these waters.

I was in high school when I began wondering why there were so many of these unmet needs in my community. An invitation to a cancer research conference hosted at a neighboring public school was an eye-opening experience. The school was one of the top-ranked in the state, nestled in a wealthy neighborhood with a well-stocked grocery store and multiple banks within walking distance. 

These waters were different.

That sense of unfairness filtered into my own life from another angle. I attended a school with limited resources which meant that opportunities within the school were offered to only a few. Since my mother was a powerful advocate for my education, I had access to after-school activities and advanced placement classes while friends living on the same block did not. That bothered me too.

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Five Experts Reflect on the Health Equity Implications of the Pandemic

Dec 1, 2020, 12:45 PM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

As the novel coronavirus swept the globe, structural racism drove its disproportionate impact on communities of color in our nation. As we look ahead to a new year, experts weigh in with thoughts and hope for shaping a healthier, more equitable future.

Two people wearing masks facing each other.

When acclaimed Barbadian author Karen Lord envisioned life on a small island during a pandemic in her story The Plague Doctors, she never imagined that within weeks of its publication, “history would become present, and fiction real life.” Lord’s short story in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, was written months before coronavirus emerged. With chilling prescience, it imagines a deadly infectious disease besetting the globe and follows Dr. Audra Lee as she fights to save her 6-year-old niece. The heroine confronts not just the disease but also a society that serves the wealthy at the expense of others.

This latter point was especially relevant here in the United States where COVID-19 hit communities of color dramatically harder than others. Centuries of structural racism have created numerous barriers to health including difficult living conditions; limited educational opportunity; high-risk jobs; lack of access to paid leave and disparities in care. Historical trauma has also driven deeply rooted mistrust of the medical establishment. All of these interconnected factors have magnified risk for both exposure to COVID-19 and the worst possible outcomes from the virus.

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Help Us Learn How Public Policy Can Advance Racial Equity

Oct 28, 2020, 12:30 PM, Posted by Mona Shah

We’re announcing $2 million in grants for policy research. Send us your ideas for studying the impact of local, state, and national policies designed to promote racial equity.

Woman wearing face masks and holding hands.

When Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to pay for more than 500 local flood-control projects, it seemed like a sound response to Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, the storm dropped 50 inches of rain in the Houston region, flooding some 166,000 homes. Based on a traditional return-on-investment analysis, it might also have appeared reasonable to spend that bond money in neighborhoods with the most expensive properties.

But county officials understood what that would mean—little protection for communities living with the most inadequate social, physical, and economic resources—many of whom are communities of color. And so, they chose a different policy approach. They gave preference to projects that ranked higher on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which uses socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic status, household composition, housing, access to transportation, and other metrics to uncover potential vulnerability. The result: funds for flood control prioritized towards low-income communities and communities of color, those least able to recover from disasters.

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Helping All New Jerseyans Live Their Healthiest Lives

Sep 17, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Sallie George

We're breaking down barriers to health equity in our home state of New Jersey by encouraging collaboration across sectors and communities.

Girls running after school with hands up.

New Jersey is ranked as one of the nation’s healthiest states—on average. But if you were to look more closely, you’d see the numbers mask significant differences in health across the state. For instance life expectancy in one Newark census tract is 75.6 years while just a few miles outside the city, it’s 87.7 years.

Race is a big factor contributing to this and other health disparities. For example, babies born into Black families in New Jersey are twice as likely to die before their first birthday in contrast to those born into white families.

Other factors contributing to health disparities include income, gender, and education. Some are less apparent, like the distance from people’s homes to parks and grocery stores or the availability of public transit. The point is that many things beyond what might immediately be thought of as health related do, in fact, play a major role in determining health. 

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Energy, Water and Broadband: Three Services Crucial To Health Equity

Sep 10, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Pamela Russo

Imagine enduring the COVID-19 pandemic without running water, reliable internet or affordable gas and electricity. While many have faced this stark reality, communities around the nation are working to build health and equity into these services.

Power line at twilight.

As COVID-19 swept our nation this year, the important influence utility services have on our health became clearer than ever. Running water is essential for washing hands to prevent infection. Electricity keeps individuals and families comfortable while they follow recommendations to stay home. And internet access allows employees to work from home, children to learn remotely while schools remain closed, patients to access needed health check-ups, and all of us to stay connected.

Conveniently powering up our laptops, logging onto the internet and turning on the faucet are things many of us take for granted. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed fault lines in America’s aging infrastructure. These inequities especially impact people of color, rural and tribal communities, and low-income households. For them, energy, water, and broadband are often unavailable, unaffordable, unreliable—and even unsafe.

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Lessons for an Equitable COVID-19 Response and Recovery

Aug 31, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Ericka Burroughs-Girardi

COVID-19 has magnified deep-rooted barriers to health and opportunity—particularly in Black, Latino, and tribal communities. Leaders from these communities shed light on how we can shape an equitable and just recovery.

Sign at a shop for new coronavirus protocol.

In the almost seven months since the novel coronavirus national emergency was declared, we’ve witnessed how it has magnified centuries-long inequities that have created deep-rooted barriers to health and opportunity in communities of color and tribal communities.

At the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, my colleagues and I know the first step to action is knowledge. We cannot address the disparities the coronavirus has brought to light without first understanding the data, challenges, and historical context at play.

Through conversations with six leaders from Black, Latino, and tribal communities, we examined the inequities the pandemic has exacerbated and explored strategies and solutions for where we can go from here. Three lessons emerged from these conversations that can inform an equitable response and recovery.

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In West Baltimore, Physical Distancing Was a Way of Life Before COVID-19

Jun 1, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Yolanda Ogbolu

Further physical distancing during COVID-19 has made us find creative and generous ways to strengthen connections.

Illustration of a family.

Imagine what it’s like to live on a block where elderly neighbors are bolted behind their front doors for fear of venturing out. Where parents worry daily about safety, so they resist letting children play in the neighborhood. Where more than half of the houses lie empty.

These images are not consequences of life under a pandemic. This was life pre-COVID-19 for the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up and now work as a nurse researcher.  

For the past year, my research team at the University of Maryland, the Black Mental Health Alliance, the PATIENTS program, and B’more for Healthy Babies at Promise Heights, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been listening to residents of two disadvantaged neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Residents told us they were “self-isolating” from family, neighbors and the community to cope with living in a neighborhood where they don’t feel supported, safe, or connected.

As one resident put it: “A lot of things scare us...it makes us not want to allow our kids to go to the recs that open because we fear that a drive by [shooting] or...standing in the doorway you can get shot.”

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Caring for Mental Health in Communities of Color During COVID-19

May 5, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Lack of access to testing, fear of being profiled while wearing face masks, and other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health in communities of color. Learn what one leader is doing about it.

Man with hand on forehead.

One of the most troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is exacerbating long-standing and deeply rooted inequities in communities of color. Health disparities stemming from structural racism have contributed to COVID-19’s devastating toll on blacks and Latinos in America. Often overlooked is how heightened stress from this heavy burden is impacting mental health.

Yolo Akili Robinson, a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity, is swiftly responding to this new reality the pandemic has created. As the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), he leads his colleagues in training health care providers and community activists, as well as non-mental health professionals (family members, peers, etc.) to address mental health needs in communities of color. Robinson is witnessing firsthand how lack of access to testing and fear of profiling while wearing face masks, among other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health.

In the following Q&A, Robinson shares insights about the impact and implications of COVID-19 on mental health within communities of color.

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Incarceration Rates: A Key Measure of Health in America

Apr 2, 2020, 1:00 PM, Posted by Carolyn Miller, Douglas Yeung

Mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity for individuals, families and communities. That’s why we have included it in the 35 measures RWJF is using to track progress toward becoming a country that values and promotes health everywhere, for everyone.

American flag behind barbed wire fence.

As coronavirus sweeps our nation it has brought deep-seated health inequities, including those linked to incarceration, to the forefront. Overcrowding and poor sanitation are putting prisoners at risk now more than ever. Persistent, widespread reports that guards and prisoners are testing positive for COVID-19 are especially alarming, and a sobering reminder that quarantines are nearly impossible among incarcerated populations. To address this, many jurisdictions are releasing select prisoners.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has long recognized how incarceration adversely affects health and health equity for prisoners as well as families and communities. With some 2.2 million adults and youth in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and jails, the United States incarcerates many more people—and a higher percentage of our population—than any other nation in the world. There is widespread agreement that incarceration has adverse effects on health and health equity, not just for prisoners themselves but also for families and communities. That’s why, in 2018, RWJF included it among 35 illustrative measures we are using to track our progress toward building a Culture of Health in America—that is, becoming a country that values health everywhere, for everyone.

The measures linked to RWJF’s Action Framework are intended to be viewed together to identify priorities for investment and collaboration, and to understand progress being made toward realizing our vision. We are also considering the impact each individual measure has on efforts to build a Culture of Health. Because mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity, tracking it allows us to examine how it compounds the persistent challenges associated with achieving health equity nationwide and affects communities.

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New Narratives of Hope This Black History Month–And Beyond

Feb 5, 2020, 4:00 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

More than 50 years after the civil rights movement we still have a lot to do to reduce discrimination and increase health equity. Dwayne Proctor reflects on the role of stories in the search for solutions.

An older student plays around with a younger student in a school auditorium.

Note: This piece was originally published in February 2018.

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is watching from my bedroom window as my city burned in the riots that erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 50 years ago.  

The next afternoon, my mother brought me to the playground at my school in Southeast Washington, D.C., which somehow was untouched. As she pushed me in a swing, she asked if I understood what had happened the day before and who Dr. King was.

“Yes,” I said. “He was working to make things better for Negroes like you.”

My mother, whose skin is several tones darker than mine, stared at me in surprise. Somehow, even at 4 years old, I had learned to observe differences in complexion.

That is particularly interesting to me now, as I eventually came to believe that “race” is a social construct.

Of course racism and discrimination exist. They are deeply embedded in America’s history and culture—but so too is the struggle against them.

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