Occupy Wall Street protests are taking hold in a growing number of US cities. These protests seek to draw attention to extreme corporate influence which leaves no part of the county’s social, political nor economic infrastructure untouched. Growing commentary has covered much ground on the causes, faults, and promise of the movement. However, a stone that has yet to be overturned is one that should have public health professionals, as well as anyone who cares about the health of their community, taking to the streets. While protesters are no doubt occupying Wall Street for a variety of reasons, in the process they are also confronting some of the most important determinants of health.
One of the movement’s fundamental concerns, excessive levels of income inequality, is a major determinant of health. In 2007, the top 1% of U.S. earners owned 34.6% of the wealth. In 2009, CEOs of major U.S. corporations took home 263 times the average compensation of American workers. It is now well established (see here, here, and here) that in places where income inequality is greater, population health is worse. It has recently been reported that the combined impact of poverty and income inequality was responsible for 291,000 US deaths in the year 2000 alone.
States with the highest income inequality are also less likely to invest in human capital and provide far less generous social safety nets. This is because income inequality also undermines civil society, erodes political participation and in turn, determines the type of policies government chooses to (and not to) pursue—all with important implications for the opportunities people have to lead a healthy life.
But the Occupy Wall Street protesters aren’t just demanding a redistribution of income–there is a far superior recognition within the movement. Protesters recognize that social ills, like income inequality, are a consequence of deliberate actions by individuals and groups who impart undue influence on the government. This is important because it is ultimately this undue influence which threatens the quality, availability and distribution of resources important for health. Resources like income, employment, food, healthcare, housing, education, and the environment. By demanding sweeping reform of an entrenched system, protesters are thus taking aim at the ultimate determinants of health. Take a look at the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City for an idea of how protesters have related corporate influence to a range of these resources. Moreover, see this report by the World Health Organization which outlines how these resources in turn influence health.
There are many reasons why the Occupy Wall Street movement should be supported. For those concerned with the public’s health the call to action should be answered without hesitation.