One might come away from a quick glance at recent Whatcom County community health assessment data with the impression that things are going pretty well here. Most people report good health status and county residents have relatively longer life expectancies than people in other communities across the state and nation.
But digging deeper into local health data reveals a more complex picture. Not everyone experiences the same level of good health, and not everyone has access to the same opportunities to be healthy. Indeed, factors such as income, ethnicity, education, geography (where people live) and family functioning - factors that are often referred to as social determinants of health - are important predictors of personal and community health. Local organizations, community members and civic and county leaders are exploring ways to address these issues with a goal of improving opportunities for everyone to be healthy.
Economic status is one of several key factors tied to health. National and international data suggest that economic insecurity in both childhood and adulthood predicts worse health and a shorter life expectancy. Local data are consistent with this finding.
Whatcom County residents who live in lower-income households are much more likely to report fair or poor health status compared with people who live in higher-income households. This relationship is step-wise - the more income in your household, the more likely you are to be healthy and vice versa.
This is an important local issue because economic insecurity impacts a lot of people. In 2009, one in every six Whatcom County residents (16.3 percent) lived below the federal poverty line, including more than 6,000 children and youth. Families with single mothers are at particular risk. Nearly two-thirds (62.6 percent) of single-mother households with young children live in poverty, according to the American Community Survey in 2009. Individuals and families who identify as Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska native, or black report the lowest incomes of any groups in the county.
Intuitively, the connection between economics and health makes sense - people with more money are likely to have better access to health care, housing, nutritious foods and other resources to keep them healthy. But such factors do not fully explain the reasons why health and longevity are so heavily influenced by income. Research shows that even for people with relatively equal access to health care and other resources, those at higher incomes still tend to be healthier.
To some extent, it appears that inequity itself - social and community inequalities - helps promote these health differences. This reality is supported by global research showing that the association between income and health is stronger in countries with more economic stratification - those countries in which the rich are much richer than the poor. In fact, perceptions of inequity may operate on a personal level, influencing a person's response to life events. Such stress can have a cumulative toll over time, and thereby contribute to the development of stress-linked diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, which are common sources of illness and death.
The Bellingham YWCA will host a panel discussion on the topic of health and economic disparities from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 24. The event is free and open to the public, and will take place at the YWCA Bellingham Ballroom at 1026 N. Forest St. The panel will feature three local experts who will further describe the evidence of economic inequities in health in Whatcom County and discuss methods by which community organizations and the community can help to address those issues. Dr. Jeff King, director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Western Washington University, will describe national trends regarding income inequity, culture and health. Dr. Astrid Newell, community health manager at Whatcom County Health Department, and Greg Winter, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, will focus on recent data collected through the Prosperity Project and highlight important findings from the Whatcom County Community Health Assessment project that was co-sponsored by PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and Whatcom County Health Department.
Cheri Kilty is the executive director of the YWCA of Bellingham. For information call the YWCA at 360-734-4820.