Everything and everyone is connected in some way. We might benefit from making the most of connectedness, but instead we often work to distance ourselves, especially when that involves some perceived advantage.
A couple of days ago, King County’s top public-health official announced he is stepping down and said the decision was partly driven by a lack of resources to address needs that are rooted in the distances between people who may live in the same country and even the same county, but are worlds apart in life prospects.
Communities and countries exist for the common welfare, or they ought to, but despite our wealth we can’t seem to find our way to funding basic infrastructure, health care, education and other aspects of the common well being.
Dr. David Fleming is leaving his position as director of Public Health — Seattle & King County as more budget cuts are on the horizon.
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The role of public health has grown under Fleming as research has broadened our understanding of the web of factors that affect health — neighborhood characteristics, income disparity, racism and more. In a story Wednesday, he said, “increasingly we’re needing to turn to these underlying drivers of what’s really making people sick.”
All of those factors are connected, and in a broader way, so are the fates of people who live in the community.
Does anyone doubt that a healthier population would benefit the whole community? And the importance of a strong community goes beyond health care to every aspect of public life. Wouldn’t a better-educated citizenry and workforce be to the advantage of all of us? What about safer roads and bridges? Adequate ferry capacity?
Most of us know all those things are important, but too many of us don’t want to contribute a fair share to paying for them.
The state’s tax system is inadequate for the needs of our population and economy, but we keep cutting because we don’t have the will to restructure the system. We’ve even slipped backward, through tax-limiting initiatives over the years. The recession tore into state and local revenues that are too heavily based on sales and real-estate taxes.
At the same time, governments at every level are pressured by corporations to give them tax breaks or else they’ll pick up and move. Too many businesses don’t feel a connection to workers or community, not even country. There’s a growing trend of corporations moving offices (sometimes just on paper) to other countries to avoid paying U.S. taxes, just as so many have moved jobs abroad to avoid paying American wages.
Of course, American wages aren’t what they used to be at the low end, which is why there is a movement to raise minimum wages. The minimum hasn’t kept up with inflation, and it doesn’t allow a working person to make ends meet, let alone improve his or her economic position. Businesses live by their profits, but profit and decency should be able to coexist.
Everybody looking out for himself alone is not a sustainable way of life. Some of that setting ourselves apart is in the competitive part of our nature, but we’ve constructed a world (urban and highly connected) in which that tendency creates problems. We can see its impacts in our economy, in which some flourish and many are left behind.
The stock market has risen to the heavens, which is good, and I just read that the economy had a strong spring quarter. But I also read this week about the heavy debt a significant percentage of Americans are carrying. Thirty-five percent of Americans have debt collectors after them, according to a new study from the Urban Institute.
Countries that have the highest economic inequality have the greatest health problems. Communities where economic opportunity is low leave some people feeling hopeless or turning to other-than-legal means of earning a living. The adoption of a gradual rise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Seattle made a strong moral statement, but a higher wage nationally is a must.
Improving conditions for most Americans doesn’t require depriving the rich of a good life, it just requires making it easier for the people struggling most to lift themselves. That kind of help spans a host of policy areas, from health care to housing to early education to nondiscriminatory policing. That’s too complex for a bumper sticker, I know, and certainly too much for the catchphrase slinging that passes for political debate these days.
We need in policy and in behavior a reaffirmation of community and the cooperative side of our nature.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com