New Orleans This is a big deal. Dr. Sandro Galea, head of epidemiology at the prestigious Columbia University School of Public Health, and a team, published a paper calculating the deaths in the United States that derive directly from social factors. They looked at six specifics: low education, racial segregation, low social support, individual-level poverty, income inequality, and area-level poverty.
The numbers are huge! Looking at the abstract of the report published as “Estimated Deaths Attributable to Social Factors in the United States,” in the American Journal of Public Health was shocking:
“Approximately 245000 deaths in the United States in 2000 were attributable to low education, 176000 to racial segregation, 162000 to low social support, 133000 to individual-level poverty, 119000 to income inequality, and 39000 to area-level poverty.”
That’s 874000 people dying per year directly due to social issues. 400,000 people in the same kind of studies have deaths attributable to smoking. 300,000 annually die from factors attributable to obesity. 193,000 die of heart attacks. Those three recognized causes to death cumulatively are equivalent to what essentially poverty, inequity, and injustice are flat-dead killing. In the vast majority of situations these are things our society could solve if we choose to do so.
Much of this comes down to the question of equity. The inability to make sure that there are equitable educational opportunities, health access, basic community services, support for children, elderly, differently able, and the mentally unstable, stress, unhealthy behavior and diet, and the list goes on, and there’s no pretending anymore, if nothing is done, it kills people. Lots of people! 874000 deaths in 2000 might be over a 1,000,000 deaths today!
These figures are almost too hot to handle. Thanks to Nicholas Bakalar and the New York Times we found the story buried in the Science Section under a mamby-pamby headline: “Researchers Link Deaths to Social Ills.” As they say in organizing, Bakalar even “swallowed the ask.” He didn’t even mention the 874000 deaths. Reading the Times article, I – and all other readers – thought it was shocking because Dr. Galea was quoted saying “… if 291,000 deaths are due to poverty and income inequality then those things matter, too.” Well, yeah! But, all Galea was doing was aggregating the last three of the six factors, income inequality, individual and area-poverty for a subtotal of 291K. The whole story was almost three times as shocking, but you wouldn’t know unless you followed the Times back to the webpage for the American Journal of Public Health.
We have to stop running from all of this and face the facts that we are a society willing to allow the rich, essentially to get away with murder, and tolerate almost a million deaths of the poor annually because of our unwillingness or inability to force America to live up to its promise and ideals about equity for all. We have always known that poverty was killing people. Now, thanks to the work of Dr. Galea and others, we are going to be able to put a pretty tight number on how many die every year because of our inability to right these wrongs as a people.