Health Care and Poverty

“At the very beginning [of the War on Poverty] we had a big Job Corps and we had a Neighborhood Youth Corps and we had Community Action Programs and VISTA. But there was nothing specifically about health. But thank God we did have eyes and we did have ears, so we could see and we could listen...and what did we find? We found out right away that for the customers, for the consumers, for the poor, health was a matter of primary importance.”
Sargent Shriver | New Orleans, LA| October 21, 1974

Our Quote of the Week emphasizes the fundamental importance of making health care available for all of us, particularly for those dealing with poverty. Sargent Shriver’s words on this topic are particularly relevant as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as with continued attacks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare).

This week’s quote is from the fiery Address Evaluating the War on Poverty to the American Public Health Association. Given in 1974, 10 years after the start of the War on Poverty, the speech includes some of Sargent Shriver’s observations about implementing health services in his time leading the War on Poverty. He stresses a point that unfortunately continues to be relevant today: that economic disparities combined with the limitations of our for-profit health care system impact millions of Americans. In the speech, Shriver shares innovative ideas for providing health services in under-served neighborhoods. He then discusses the creation of a “National Health Insurance Law” that would, in his words, “remove all financial barriers to heath care in this country” – a compelling argument that has been echoed in recent discussions about a public health care option, and even universal health care, in the US.

Some notes about health care and the War on Poverty: during Sargent Shriver’s tenure as the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO, the administrative office of the War on Poverty), he oversaw the creation of several Neighborhood Health Centers, which today operate as the National Association of Community Health Centers. These centers provide medical services to citizens regardless of their economic status. As well, the individual agencies born out of the War on Poverty, including Community Action and Head Start, continue to provide some health services to their communities.

In our current moment of crisis, COVID-19 is actually a threat multiplier: it is not only endangering the physical health of our communities, it is also plunging more and more of us into poverty. Recent studies have revealed that the number of poor people in the US has increased by eight million in the US, “with circumstances worsening most for Black people and children.” This is an unprecedented crisis, but as we move through it, we are also in a position to create a new opportunity: that of finally tearing down the obstacles that prevent tens of millions of Americans from being able to access health care without worrying about cost.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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