According to the Root Cause Coalition, health equity is health justice. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity to live a long, healthy life. In America, the single most important factor in our overall health is our zip code. Basically, the environments where we live, work, learn and grow represents both an opportunity and a challenge for the healthcare community.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Root Cause Coalition's National Summit in New Orleans earlier this month. Even as someone who works to fight hunger every day, it was so insightful. Hunger is just one piece of poverty. There are so many things that lead to a cycle of poverty that is so difficult to get out of. The "root causes" of poverty go beyond generational poverty, losing a job, or other catastrophic situation. Poverty is rooted in systemic issues that can be like quicksand--health insurance, jobs, mental health, education, transportation, addiction, barriers to making healthy choices, childcare...the list goes on and on.
In a small way, I was able to experience these challenges when I was part of a poverty simulation workshop. The Cost of Poverty Experience is training that offers participants a glimpse into the lives of low-income individuals and families living in our community. It is a look into the obstacles that are faced, the decisions that are made, and the consequences that impact these families every day. I was assigned an identity and a family. I was a Caucasian male, in my late 30s, with a nonviolent felony on my record. I had a wife, a 10-year-old daughter, and a 1-year-old with asthma. I had a job but was laid off and since that time had been unable to find work due to my criminal history. Having a steady job was a condition of my parole. Right away, I saw the devastating cycle--I have to get a job to stay out of jail but I can't get a job because I was in jail. I am a person who is trying to turn my life around, care for my family, and right off the bat I am set up for failure.
We were lucky enough to have a car (many in the simulation did not) and decent health insurance. However, as I moved through the simulation with my family (we experienced a month over the course of 2 hours) things were constantly changing. Just when I thought I had it together something would happen. This is life, right? However, what struck me was the constant level of anxiety I had over things beyond my control--feelings of hopelessness set in quickly. I was able to get a part-time job and once I did, I was relieved knowing I didn't have to worry about parole. Then I found out that because of this very low-paying part-time job, we no longer qualified for public assistance. My daughter had a major asthma attack and had to go to the hospital. Because of the emergency, my wife missed work and was fired from her job, losing our health insurance. We suddenly had huge medical bills we could not cover. Every week, I had to go to the grocery store and was forced to pick the unhealthy, less-expensive food options. I went to a church where I heard there was food and I was told they were out of food but they would pray for me.
It was unspeakably frustrating and dehumanizing.
I lived it for two hours. However, people live it every day, all day. There is so much more to ending poverty than ending hunger. It truly takes a community effort to make real change. However, at the FRFB we are constantly at work to evolve and grow to meet the needs of those we serve. Currently, we are raising funds to repair our loading dock so we can more efficiently receive food. We are expanding to build a new kitchen so we can have healthier options as part of our programs. We are working to increase the amount of fresh produce distributed through all of our programs. This is just a drop in the bucket but it is a start and we must start somewhere.
If you have any suggestions on how we as a community can fight systemic poverty, either through your business, your own time and talent or through your civic and religious groups, we would love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me or our CEO & President, Oya Oliver. It is only through community partnerships that we can find long-term solutions.