Why Occupying Wall Street can make the U.S. Healthier

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.

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Kevin McNamara says:

    Interesting…While I agree that there needs to be health care reform with regard to delivering services I suspect it needs to be more focused than the “Occupy…” folks would advocate. They are are all over the place since most are disgruntled because of the general state of the economy and are lashing out. Unfortunately the organized left is making this a ‘down with capitalism’ movement. If we bring down capitalism we will be left with socialism and we will be following Europe’s failed experiment; or as Winston Churchill would say, an ‘equal sharing of the misery.’ While the top 1% may own 35% of wealth–and make 17% of the country’s income–they also pay 37% of our taxes. Like our country, nothing will move forward unless there are people to build consensus from the entrenched special interests. We need to focus on bringing down the cost of services by opening up interstate competition among health insurance providers while attacking the abuses (trial lawyer excesses, etc.) and streamlining government oversight. Reducing the administrative costs of providing medical care will never level the playing field for the poor, but it will provide a better chance of lessening or eliminating many costs. It all starts with the banks and government–just as they are responsible for the economic calamity, they must also be held accountable for taking the lobbyists-factor out of the medical industry. Somehow a focused mandate must be developed to make the power brokers respond to focused health care issues. I suspect the Occupy movement is too into chaos to deliver on your wishes.

  2. [...] support the global Occupy movement.  This falls in line with a connection drawn cogently first by Health Policies for a Healthy World and more recently by UC Berkeley’s Dean of Public Health, Steve Shortell.   Shortell’s call [...]

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