If you have to be poor and homeless, don’t be poor and homeless for long. If you have to be poor and homeless, learn how to fill out all of those food, health, and housing support forms before you become poor and homeless. If you have to be poor and homeless, chose carefully which city to be poor and homeless in.
That’s my take-home message from this past week’s top public health news stories, as well as from my recent trips to the underbellies of both Los Angeles and Cleveland. If I somehow were to become poor and homeless again, I would want to be poor and homeless in my adopted hometown of Seattle. Seattle has its problems, but as a major U.S. city, we somehow manage to do many things right.
First, the buzz created among health policy-minded people and even laypersons from a recent article in JAMA reporting research results indicating that individual health behaviors like smoking and lack of exercise among poor people in the U.S. are the most important correlates of their diminished life expectancy compared with higher income people.
The April 10, 2016 JAMA article, “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014” by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and associates, used an impressively large dataset of 1.4 billion deidentified tax records; Social Security Administration death records; rates of self-reported smoking, obesity, and exercise from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; Medicaid claims data; national/regional data on major urban ‘commuting zones,’ urban area per capita government spending, fraction of the local population that are college graduates, average housing price, and level of socio-economic neighborhood segregation. The researchers claim to have found weak to no correlations between life expectancy and many of the classic social determinants of health, while finding a strong correlation between individual health behaviors (especially smoking) of the poor and life expectancy. Although, in digging into this quite dense article, it becomes apparent that being poor in some urban areas and regions of our country is much worse than in others. The 10 states with the lowest life expectancy for the poorest people form a belt across our country: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Their data indicate that it is much better to be poor if you live in urban areas of California, New York, or Vermont. And they report that the strongest protective factors for people people include the percentage of recent immigrants (long known to be healthier when they first arrive to the U.S. but we somehow beat the healthy living out of them), higher local government expenditures per capita, and the fraction of the local population with college degrees.
Life expectancy was not shown to vary by access to most health care, but it was positively associated with level of preventive care. The level of residential segregation by socio-economic level mainly negatively impacted the life expectancy of people in the top income bracket. That finding should be getting much greater emphasis in the press: to all the richie-rich people who live in gated communities, believe in trickle-down economics, and do everything they can to avoid (or to invest in) impoverished areas near where they live, are paying the price by shortening their own life expectancies–and the life expectancies of their family members.
But it is important to read and digest the JAMA editorial in the same issue, “The Good Life: Working Together to Improve Population Health and Well-Being” by Steven H. Woolf and Jason Q. Parnell. As they astutely point out, the Chetty study has several major flaws (that, not surprisingly, were largely unnoticed and ignored by mainstream media). First, the researchers of the Chetty study used life expectancy at age 40 years instead of the more usual and robust life expectancy at birth. They also excluded people with no reportable income on federal taxes (thus, most all people experiencing homelessness), and they excluded people who live in rural or urban/commuting areas of less than 590,000 persons. Woolf and Parnell also point out that the Chetty, et al research report–and the way the researchers structured the study–“ignores both upstream determinants of individual health behaviors and the poor measurement of other pathways.”
Woolf (a physician) and Parnell go one to claim “that everyone seeks a good life,” of which health is an essential component, “but a good life also involves productive work, emotional and spiritual well-being, supportive social relationships, and a clean and safe environment. (…) Inequity, a term that can engender political controversy, is giving way to the language of opportunity and the more positive, bipartisan message that everyone deserves a fair chance at the American dream. Education is seen as an answer, not only for better health but also to combat poverty, crime, racism, the loss of blue-collar jobs, and many other social challenges. Many sectors are targeting early childhood, a pivotal age to shift life trajectories, giving children tools for success in education and careers and breaking the cycle of poverty while also preventing illness, behavioral disorders, substance abuse, and violent crime.” Woolf and Parnell exhort their (mainly) physician readers to use their “gravitas” to advocate for local improvements in the social determinants of health. They (annoyingly) leave out the essential role of nurses and all other members of the health care team. But, okay, it is JAMA after all.
Chetty was a researcher on an earlier study on variations in upward mobility of children growing up in different urban areas. In a July 22, 2013 NYT article, “In Climbing Income Ladder-Location Matters,” David Leonhardt used the study’s findings to compare children’s income mobility if they lived in Seattle versus Atlanta (at the time, the two cities had similar median incomes). Leonhardt writes, “The gaps can be stark. On average, fairly poor children in Seattle — those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution — do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children — those who grew up at the 50th percentile — from Atlanta.” The researchers of this study outlined four main factors which were linked with upward mobility for children growing up in poverty: 1) living in less socio-economically segregated neighborhoods, 2) living in a two-parent household, 3) access to better public elementary and high schools, and 4) higher levels of civic engagement, including in religious and community groups.
I leave you with some uplifting, positive, encouraging (and yes, nurse-centric) news related to this topic. The cost-effective, evidence-based Nurse-Family Partnership program is again in the news. I’ve written about this amazing program before (see “More Babies! Nurse-Family Partnership” January 29, 2012). The New Yorker, in a March 1, 2016 post titled “One of the Stranger Jobs in Texas,” links to a recent “The New Yorker Presents” film by Dawn Porter titled “Lone Star Nurse.” The film follows the work of former teen mother turned public health/ Nurse-Family Partnership nurse Nicole Schroeder as she visits “her girls” in Port Arthur, Texas. I say we need many more Nurse-Family Partnership nurses like Schroeder and much fewer high-end, elective surgery hospital nurses.