The problem: why do we care about economic inequality?
Study after study indicates that there is a link between our country's widening income gap and population health indicators, including life expectancy. In 2013, the National Academies of Sciences explored this subject and released a research report. The title says it all: "US Health in International Perspectives: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health."
Despite spending more money on health care than the rest of the world combined, Americans die earlier and experience more illness than our counterparts in other developed nations - and even many developing nations.
We set out to address this issue in the same way that we approach other major challenges to public health - how can we prevent what we cannot cure?
One Solution: Improve Wages at the bottom
One way to address economic inequality is by ensuring that all Washingtonians can earn a livable wage. We cannot expect that someone who makes $10 an hour can support a family on $20,000 a year. Low-wage earners have fewer options in terms of food, exercise, living conditions, and preventative medicine.
That's why we joined the movement of people advocating for a $15 minimum wage. And of course, we've had great success on that front - first in Seatac and Seattle, and then with a vote last November to raise the minimum wage statewide.
Whatever we do to raise the floor, as long as the high income earners remain in the exosphere, our health will never improve compared to so many other nations. Studies over the last four decades have shown that more equal societies have lower mortality, longer lives, and more well-being. Inequality kills. It is like a colorless, odorless, invisible highly toxic gas that kills us from the usual conditions we die of. And we are totally unaware of it.
Another solution: invest in early life
Besides advocating for economic justice, we've turned our attention toward providing systemic support for people during critical times. Early life - the first 1,000 days after conception - is vitally important to a person's lifelong health. As much as half of our adult health may be programmed during that critical period. Therefore, investing in early life is one way to address the diminished health outcomes associated with poverty and inequality.
Studies indicate paid maternity leave results in fewer low birthweight babies, fewer infant deaths, higher rates of breastfeeding, increased probability of children being fully vaccinated, increased long-term achievement for children, and longer parental lifespan.
And yet, the US is one of only two countries that do not have a policy that guarantees some paid leave for new parents. (The other is Papua New Guinea.)
By implementing paid parental leave, we can save lives - and we can dramatically improve health outcomes for the poorest children, as well as improve the health of their mothers.
WPSR members have been working hard to build grassroots support for paid family leave among health care professionals. Last year our members successfully encouraged the Washington Academy of Family Physicians to pass a resolution stating that the academy would “advocate for addressing the dearth of state funding for a parental leave policy that provides working parents job-protected time with their newborn or adopted child”.
Below, you will find examples of current and past work by WPSR members on the topic of income inequality, including:
- A video of street interviews in Seattle on public opinion of paid parental leave policies
- "Population Health and Paid Parental Leave: What the United States Can Learn from Two Decades of Research," an article by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka and Adam Burtle
- Information on our work with the Washington Work and Family Coalition
We’re currently building a larger task force to help with this work. If you are interested in participating in this effort, or have suggestions for us, please get in touch.
Street Interviews: Public Opinion on Parental Leave
Interviews by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka and Adam Burtle
Click the video to see clips from some of the interviews conducted in Seattle while surveying attitudes and knowledge related to American family leave, inequality, and social determinants of health.
Population Health and Paid Parental Leave: What the United States Can Learn from Two Decades of Research
journal article by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka and adam burtle
Over the last two decades, numerous studies have suggested that dedicated time for parents to be with their children in the earliest months of life offers significant benefits to child health. The United States (US) is the only wealthy nation without a formalized policy guaranteeing workers paid time off when they become new parents. As individual US states consider enacting parental leave policies, there is a significant opportunity to decrease health inequities and build a healthier American population. This document is intended as a critical review of the present evidence for the association between paid parental leave and population health.
Our Work with the Washington Work and Family Coalition
SPEARHEADING PAID PARENTAL LEAVE FOR WASHINGTON FAMILIES
Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility joined the Washington Work and Family Coalition in 2016. The WWFC is Washington State’s coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses dedicated to promoting responsible workplace policies in support of healthy families and strong businesses.
In 2017, we supported paid family and medical leave bills in the Washington state Senate and in the House (SB 5032 by Senator Karen Keiser; HB 1116 by Representative June Robinson). At the end of the 2017 legislative session, the Washington legislature passed a measure that will provide paid parental and family leave for working families. Beginning in 2020, working families will be able to take extended paid time off for the birth or adoption of a new child, to care for an ill or injured family member, or for their own serious health condition. The measure will allow 12 weeks of paid family leave, which can be extended up to 16 weeks in some cases and up to 18 weeks for individuals with pregnancy-related complications.