Our Quote of the Week highlights a problem that is as true in America in 2020 as it was when Sargent Shriver spoke these words in 1967: that our for-profit health care system does not allow all of us to have equal access to care.
Sargent Shriver spoke these words at the first American Medical Association National Conference on Health Care for the Poor. He was speaking in his capacity as Diretor of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the entity that created and managed the programs of the War on Poverty. In his speech, he outlined the many ways in which being poor impacts one's health in the United States. He mentioned, among other issues:
- that poor children go without medical and dental care and are much more likely to die before the age of one
- that the poor are disproportionately affected, and have a higher mortality rate, by certain diseases
- that poor communities suffer from being what we would refer to today as "medical deserts," i.e., areas that have no health care providers or facilities at all
- that poor women using public hospitals have little or no access to pre-natal care
- that African American pregnant women in particular have a startlingly higher mortality rate than white women
In short, to use Sargent Shriver's own words: "for a poor person in America, poverty is not something you just feel in your pocketbook or wallet. You feel it in your body."
To address the issue of health care, as Sargent Shriver describes, the OEO created Neighborhood Health Centers (now known as the National Association of Community Health Centers), which expanded access to health care in poorer communities. Some other OEO programs, including Community Action and Head Start, also incorporated health services into their offerings. While all of these services continue to exist today, the issues that Sargent Shriver described continue to persist and are exacerbated by our health insurance system. Even with the gains made in coverage after the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), millions of Americans continue to have no access to health insurance, and a 2019 census bureau report shows that for the first time since the passing of the ACA in 2010, the number of uninsured persons edged higher.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown us the many ways in which Sargent Shriver's words still remain true today. Any local map of COVID-19 cases and deaths by zip code will show that poorer neighborhoods consistently have higher cases and mortality rates from the virus, and that African American communities and other communities of color are disproportionately affected. With the COVID crisis and in general, many conservative voices argue that we cannot afford to care for everyone. But looking at the human cost of approach to health care in this country, we should really be asking: how can we afford not to care for the health needs of every citizen?