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Another Voice: Economic fixes can address racial health disparities

By Larry Zielinski

In 1971, I was the editor of our school newspaper. One of my first interviews was of the newly elected congressman and former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp.

Rather than talk about football, however, Kemp focused his remarks on how he saw capitalism as the answer to the economic inequities facing aging Rust Belt cities like Buffalo. Kemp spent his athletic career working side by side with largely African American teammates, and that experience magnified the unfairness of these inequities in his mind.

Kemp went on to be a champion of the concept of “enterprise zones.” His idea was simple: create a tax and regulatory climate where anyone could open or expand a business in these underserved areas. He wanted to make it easy and affordable for every entrepreneur, combining lower employment and corporate income tax rates with easier regulations.

His ideas were never adopted. The “enterprise zones” of the Clinton era were a complicated morass of regulations.

Twenty years after that interview, I began working in health care and saw first hand how poverty affects the health and well-being of African Americans. It was clearly evident that non-health care related factors (job opportunities, poor access to good food, poor schools, substandard housing and high levels of crime and violence) had more to do with a person’s health than access to a health system.

Skip ahead another 20 years, and by 2010, all of the health policy experts were focusing on the importance of these “social determinants” and their impact on the health of African American communities. The statistics remain heartbreaking: African Americans have life expectancies, infant mortality rates and chronic disease rates comparable to Third World countries.

The most critical determinant is economic. Bringing good jobs to our urban communities would serve as the foundation for improvement in the other factors.

The chance of a policy solution to this problem in our fractured political environment is close to zero. Therefore, it is time for the private sector to step up and invest in the economic development of our urban communities.

Can Kemp’s adopted hometown lead the way in finally implementing a private solution to his dream?

The public is invited to explore the topic at the second annual Igniting Hope conference, Aug. 16-17 at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The theme is “Building a Culture of Health and Ending African American Health Disparities.” More information can be found at Millenniumcc.org.

Larry Zielinski is executive in residence in health care administration at the University at Buffalo.

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