The connection between wealth and health

By Marian Wright Edelman
-Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Jun 6, 2006 - 10:03:00 AM

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We spend almost $6 billion every month on the war in Iraq. Less than four months of this spending would also pay for health coverage for every uninsured child in this country.

In a country where 13 million children live in poverty and nine million children are uninsured, most of them in working families, money determines a lot about the circumstances that affect children’s health. Health should not depend on wealth, but far too often it does.

For a child, wealth might determine whether your parents can afford to pick up the phone and take you to the doctor every time you are sick, or whether they may end up putting off care so long that a routine illness lands you in the emergency room. Even if your family has some health coverage, wealth might determine if you can go to the dentist when you have a toothache, get glasses when you cannot see the blackboard, or talk to a mental health professional when your family is facing a crisis or whether those things are just “frills.”

Wealth might determine whether you live in a home with clean air, or a home where you are exposed to peeling lead paint, insects, rodent droppings, dust and mold that aggravate your asthma; and whether you spend eight hours every school day in an old, rundown building that has the same problems. It might also determine whether your family can afford fresh fruits and vegetables, or rely mainly on less expensive, less healthy packaged and fast food.

Wealth might determine whether your family lives in a neighborhood with green playgrounds and parks, or whether you live next to a treatment plant or power lines, in a neighborhood with no place to run and play. Wealth might also determine whether you live in a neighborhood where you are not allowed to play outside at all, and where you are more likely to be a victim of gun violence.

In the wealthiest nation on earth, the fact that we still cannot promise a healthy start to all children is shameful. I first learned lessons about race and health as a little girl growing up in the segregated Bennettsville, S.C. I remember when little Johnny Harrington, who lived three houses down from my church parsonage, stepped on and died from a nail because his grandmother did not have a doctor to advise her or any money to pay for health care.

I also remember the migrant family who collided with a truck on the highway near my home, and the ambulance driver who refused to take them to the hospital because they were Black. And I remember when my classmate Henry Munnerlyn broke his neck when he jumped off the bridge into the town creek because only White children were allowed in the town swimming pool. I later heard that the creek where Blacks swam and fished was the hospital sewage outlet.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane. Forty years later, Black children are almost twice as likely and Latino children are almost three times as likely as White children to be uninsured. It is unacceptable that access to health care and safe, clean places to live and play are still separate and unequal for so many Americans. Hurricane Katrina ripped the blinders off many different kinds of contemporary American injustice, including health care. When people are able to survive a massive hurricane, but may not survive an asthma or panic attack in its wake because they do not have access to health and mental health care, it is a problem.

Some people may think this does not affect their family. But when the average health insurance premium for a family of four costs $11,000 a year, and when half of all bankruptcies in this country are related to healthcare costs, that is not necessarily true. Some people may think our nation just cannot afford to cover its nine million uninsured children. But the recent round of $1.9 trillion in tax cuts, when fully in effect, will give the richest one percent of all taxpayers $57 billion each year. That is more than twice as much as would be needed to provide health coverage to all nine million uninsured children for a whole year. We also spend almost $6 billion every month on the war in Iraq. Less than four months of this spending would also pay for health coverage for every uninsured child in this country.

The fact that our nation does not yet guarantee all its children a healthy start is a problem for all of us. But it is a problem that we, as a nation, can afford to fix.

(Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.)