Access to health care is critical for the health of individuals and for the well-being of the community, but health depends on more than medical care. Studies show that the social determinants of health, including education, socioeconomic status, poverty, the physical and social environment, employment, and discrimination, among others, are at least as important for health as is medical care. It is worth considering where the new administration stands with respect to the social determinants of health. President Trump’s budget, perhaps the best indication we have of his administration’s priorities, unfortunately appears to show little interest in addressing the social determinants.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request, proposed back in May, targeted many of the social factors that impact health, slashing funding for education, energy, the environment, housing and urban development, among other social sectors. If the social determinants of health are underfunded, however, people’s need for health care will increase. As a result, these cuts would hurt the health and well-being of people living in the United States and would drive up the cost of health care. Take, for instance, the connection between education and health. According to economists David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney, four extra years of education reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percentage points and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points. People with more education are also less likely to smoke, drink excessively, use illegal drugs, or be overweight.
In a recent study published by the Brookings Institution, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton show that “deaths of despair”—those associated with drugs, alcohol, and suicide—have risen significantly among middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans without a college degree. In this respect, the United States is unique among the affluent nations Case and Deaton compare. They largely attribute this rise to a decrease in work opportunities for people with lower levels of education. Trump’s proposed budget, rather than boosting education and training, cuts funding for the Department of Education by 13 percent and for the Department of Labor by 21 percent. It also reduces funding for before-school, after-school, and summer programs by over $1.2 billion.
Living conditions also impact health. Asthma has been found to be the leading cause of children’s visits to emergency rooms, hospitalizations, and school absenteeism. Exposure to parasites and infectious agents, air pollution from vehicles, and the construction of buildings with poor circulation and little fresh air are among the causes of asthma in children. Not surprisingly, asthma is more prevalent in poor and minority communities. There is also evidence that public housing is itself a risk factor for asthma. Instead of increasing support for housing, Trump’s budget proposes a 15.2 percent reduction to housing assistance over a 10-year period.
The burden of the proposed budget’s assault on the social determinants of health will be borne primarily by the poor, but not only by them. Because people are social, the health of one person can impact the health of many people in a community. Health has some of the qualities of a public good. People are social; they flourish in the company of others. Their health is affected by the health of others and it affects the health of others. Contagious diseases are one example of how the poor health of one person can affect the health of others. Herd immunity demonstrates how the good health of some confers health benefits on others. To put it differently, health has a spillover effect.
Studies show that people are healthier when incomes are relatively equal, when early education is high-quality and accessible, and when poverty is low. For better or for worse, our health depends upon the health of other people, and their health upon ours. Unless we are prepared to live solitary lives, policy that affects the social determinants of health must contend with the inextricable connection between our health and the health of others.
Given the social dimensions of health, failure to ensure the health of all people with, for example, enriched educational opportunities and adequate housing and social programs, puts everyone’s health at risk. There are important social justice reasons for promoting the social determinants of health. But one need not care about justice and ethics to want to provide for the health of others. Self-interest speaks for itself. In this case, the message is loud and clear: ignore the health of others at your peril.