You might think having access to a doctor to treat illness is the most important factor in staying healthy. But public health leaders and partners in Thurston County have been exploring ways that other factors — where people are born, grow up, live, work, and age — impact health.
The community campaign Thurston Thrives brings together community partners to promote the health of Thurston County residents. The collaboration identified needs and strategic plans addressing nine dimensions of health, including food, housing, education, community design, and the environment. (Get details at co.thurston.wa.us/health/
thrives). Among the conditions addressed by Thurston Thrives, economic conditions are one of the most fundamental to a person’s health.
Poverty exists when people cannot afford to meet basic human needs. In the United States, the federal poverty level is less than $23,850 per year for a family of four. This figure, updated every year, is set by a method established in the 1960s. Whether this is adequate income is controversial. Two full-time workers earning minimum wage in our state would earn just more than $39,000 per year. Is that adequate?
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The Washington Work Force Development Council and the Allen Foundation helped fund development of a State Self-Sufficiency Calculator ( thecalculator.org/
calculator.php). It estimates a family of four with one preschool and one school-age child would need a little more than $59,000 per year to live in our community without any private or public help.
The goal of Thurston Thrives’ Economy Strategy is to ensure that poverty is rare and people are economically secure. One measure under consideration is the number of living-wage jobs.
However we define adequate income, health experts agree income is strongly associated with health and expected length of life. For example, a person’s life expectancy varies by as many as 10 years between ZIP codes in King County, depending on differences in median household income. Although not as dramatic, we see a similar pattern in Thurston County. U.S. Census and vital statistics data show residents living in the five highest-income ZIP codes in Thurston County have an average life expectancy of 81 years, while those in the poorest ZIP codes can expect to live an average of 79 years.
Creating living-wage jobs that allow families to be self-sufficient is a public health issue. Why? Inadequate income is linked to negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, poor nutrition and hunger, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, and neighborhoods where it is unsafe to be physically active. The chronic stress associated with an uncertain ability to meet basic needs can contribute to health problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration problems.
The effects of poverty go beyond the individual. Income also affects a community’s ability to support capital improvements; to build and maintain schools; to provide health care services; and to provide policing, social, and sanitation services.
Given a thriving economy with adequate jobs and wages, communities like ours can avoid many of the conditions that diminish health. Getting there is an important goal for public health and its many partners.