I have always been captivated by some people’s ability to use only a handful of words to illustrate very complicated concepts and perspectives. Maybe 15 years ago or so, I was deeply moved by the title of a photography exhibit in the Twin Cities – “Those People.” The exhibit sought to put a human, personal, real face on people often discounted or invisible in the eyes of mainstream Minnesota.
Over the years, as I’ve gone about my life brushing up against the stronger, thicker, higher walls that seem to be arising between the many and varied sub-communities of our state, I’ve often thought about the title of that exhibit.
“Those People” again came to mind when I attended the presentation Oct. 7 of key findings of The Unequal Distribution of Health in the Twin Cities, a research project commissioned by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation and conducted by Wilder Research.
The graphs and charts revealed statistics about health disparities that could lead one to think that we can define a group of “those people” who live in certain zip codes, are of a certain racial background, have a certain educational attainment or earn a certain income as those who are suffering the most in the Twin Cities.
After the research was presented, a panel of community leaders responded. The panel was part of a group of seven sector leaders who authored response papers to the research report. While each had a unique and insightful perspective, the common thread was the notion that we all have a stake in the inequalities that face “those people” and, by working collaboratively, we can diminish the disparities and erase the notion that there is a “those people.” As Paul Wellstone once said, “We all do better when we all do better.”
Dane Smith, president of Growth and Justice, was one of the panelists and authored a response. He writes, “Not just the poor and racial minorities benefit from greater economic security and reduced inequality. Research shows that mortality and longevity rates are superior for all income levels in the more equal states.”
Fifty percent of a person’s health is driven by health behaviors and health care (tobacco use, diet and exercise, access to quality care, etc.), and 50 percent is driven by social, economic and physical environment factors, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute; it is this second 50 percent that was the focus of the Wilder research. In other words, the Wilder report says, “More than half of a person’s health is driven by income, education, race and neighborhood.”
In its companion piece to the research report, Revealing Socioeconomic Factors That Influence Your Health, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation summarizes the statistics:
- Each additional $10,000 in an area’s median household income is associated with a full year gain in life expectancy.
- Life expectancy is nearly five years less for those with the lowest levels of education, compared to those with a high degree of post-secondary education attainment.
- Life expectancy in the Twin Cities swings widely from 83 years for Asians to 61.5 years for American Indians.
- Children born into the highest income areas live eight years longer than those born into the poorest communities.
The foundation also issues a call to action: “The Twin Cities and Minnesota are poised to be leaders in closing the health equity gap. Together, we can change the pathway that has led to health disparities. We will all be healthier when we focus on improving the social factors that play a powerful role in determining health.”
This view that fellow citizens are not “those people” who need help, but partners in this quest – a part of “us,” will go a long way in helping frame long-lasting, impactful solutions. “Those people” is a dangerous way to view our communities, and I’m thankful that it’s not reflected in this research and the subsequent work planned by numerous community organizations and foundations to solve the health inequalities brought to light.
Access the full research report on the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation website. Also available are the foundation’s companion piece and the response papers.
– Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate
FYI, Current plans are for Twin Cities Public Television to air a program focusing on the Oct. 7 presentation in January on its Minnesota Channel. Look for the program listing in November/December on the TPT website. In the near future, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation website will also provide video excerpts of the panel presentation, as well as links to the TPT program.