Health and economic equity: Interrelated determinants

By Dennis Archambault

Health influences economic equity. Economic equity influences health. If you have health, you’re more likely to excel in education, job-preparedness, and productive employment. If you are thriving economically, you will have or can afford good health care, you’re more likely to be educated and informed about positive health behaviors, and your long-term health risks are likely to be mitigated by access to informed choices.

This is an oversimplified correlation, but it’s well-known among those who understand the social determinants of health. When the question of economic equity arose in a local discussion regarding economic equity, health either seemed to be assumed or overlooked, when it should be viewed as integral to the discussion. The idea of health – and social mechanisms that engineer and produce health – seems to be less relevant in the broader discussion of economic equity than access to capital, land, career and job skills, opportunity, pipeline enhancements, and other factors.

While not widely reported, the effects of health on development are evident, according to an article in OECD Observer ( “Countries with weak health and education conditions find it harder to achieve sustained growth. Indeed, economic evidence confirms that a 10% improvement in life expectancy at birth is associated with a rise in the economic growth of some 0.3-0.4 percentage points a year…Disease hinders institutional performance too. Lower life expectancy discourages adult training and damages productivity. Similarly, the emergence of deadly communicable diseases has become an obstacle for the development of sectors like the tourism industry, on which so many countries rely.”

Recently, much thought has been given to the critical importance of the first year of life as a determinant of long-term health and viability. A stable prenatal and post-natal environment has a lot to do with a healthy delivery. Post-natal care through well-baby visits and immunizations, leading to early childhood care and learning create a step toward equity that low-income parents often need to navigate the chaos of their environment.

Head Start and early childhood development initiatives are important to introduce a low-income child to education, an essential tool to prepare a child to be a productive learner. Mental and physical well-being contributes to the child’s educational attainment. When a child is absent because of sickness, or excessive distracted, they don’t learn and develop. Conflict within learning environments often deters educational development, especially for low-income students. By middle-school, violence becomes a major public health issue.

Assuming a child effectively navigates the barriers to achieving educational equity – with a strong educational and counseling support system – the individual’s health will determine their preparation for academic success, which, in turn, leads to professional development. Substance abuse and criminal behavior will likely undercut the student’s ability to be competitive in the workforce. By high school graduation, their future is largely determined. That’s not to undercut the power of one’s will or that an individual may change later in life. Even if able to find an employment tract, an unhealthy individual will be more absent, less competitive, and ultimately economically disadvantaged.

The cost of unproductive and unhealthy people has been well-documented. But the role of creating health (rhymes with “wealth”) isn’t often brought up. If someone is not motivated by the humanitarian value of creating a healthy start in life for everyone, then they should consider the cost to the economy of not doing so. For those who believe in the ethic of economic equity, they should consider its interrelationship of health.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.