Roots of Equity: Addressing Health Disparities and Advancing Inclusive Solutions in Michigan

June 18, 2024 | Ninah Sasy

A suburban house in the 1940s, donated to ASTHO by Ninah SasySocial determinants of health (SDOH)—e.g., socioeconomic status, education, employment, housing, access to healthcare, and environmental factors—profoundly shape individual and population health. SDOH includes social and cultural factors such as racism, discrimination, and bias (based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other marginalized identities) that contribute to health inequities by creating barriers to resources, opportunities, and fair treatment. Understanding and addressing these factors is essential for promoting health equity and improving overall well-being.

The Historical Landscape of Systemic Discrimination

My grandparents were born in the late 1930s and early 1940s, during which a significant number of discriminatory practices and policies directly impacted their career trajectory and the stability of their family. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation, leading to inequities in education, housing, and employment opportunities. Like many African Americans, my grandparents relocated from the South to northern states for better opportunities (specifically Flint, MI, to join the automobile industry). When they arrived, they encountered additional discrimination, including redlining. The practice of redlining involved discriminatory lending practices by financial institutions, explicitly denying or limiting financial services, such as loans or insurance, to certain neighborhoods or communities, often based on the perceived risk of racial or ethnic minorities. Despite that, my grandparents were fortunate to live the American Dream of owning a home; I remember their beautiful green lawns and my grandmother’s flower gardens from when I was a child. Importantly, African Americans weren’t the only ones impacted by discriminatory laws and practices. My maternal grandmother, who was Native American, faced discrimination as well through forced assimilation, a direct contrast to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which was intended to promote cultural preservation. Many minority populations and impoverished farmers faced unimaginable discrimination—and the repercussions are still evident today.

Health Inequities and Racial Weathering

Health inequities persist when comparing African Americans to their White counterparts. Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, significant disparities in mortality rates became apparent. Understanding the origins of these disparities connects back to the historical landscape of our country and the antiquated policies that perpetuate these inequities. In addition to the Jim Crow laws creating an unfair advantage for some Americans to achieve generational wealth, there are day-to-day infractions that persist today.

Racial weathering describes the cumulative physical and psychological toll of experiencing systemic racism and discrimination over time. This phenomenon manifests through chronic stressors such as microaggressions, unequal access to resources, and institutionalized racism, which can have profound effects on individuals' health outcomes. Research suggests that racial weathering contributes to disparities in chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, and overall well-being among marginalized communities. The cumulative physical and psychological toll of experiencing systemic racism and discrimination over time. This phenomenon manifests through chronic stressors such as microaggressions, unequal access to resources, and institutionalized racism, which can have profound effects on individuals' health outcomes. Research suggests that racial weathering contributes to disparities in chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, and overall well-being among marginalized communities.

My grandparents and their neighbors took pride in their homes. However, several factors, including the closure of numerous factories, have contributed to disinvestment in the Flint, MI community. When the primary employer, the automobile industry, departed, so did a portion of the population to seek employment in other communities. Consequently, there was a lack of investment in the school systems, as they relied heavily on property taxes. This domino effect resulted in food insecurity and housing instability. Once vibrant homes with lush lawns and blooming flowers were replaced with abandoned properties and businesses. As a result, individuals must travel 20 to 30 minutes by car to reach a grocery store instead of taking a 10-minute walk for fresh produce.

Transforming Public Health in Michigan

Culturally Appropriate Solutions

According to the Michigan State Plan on Aging, approximately 2.5 million people in Michigan (or 25.3% of the state’s population) are 60 or older. Considering the comprehensive policy and programmatic needs to support this growing population, we must better understand and create culturally appropriate solutions. It is also critical that we acknowledge and address the longstanding historical inequities intertwined in laws, policies, and social structure that have created health inequities in our aging minority populations. Addressing these inequities is crucial to support health equity and improve the overall well-being of all older adults in Michigan.

We are fortunate to have the Michigan State Plan on Aging at the state level. The Plan was developed and implemented with the support of diverse voices by integrating fundamental principles such as health equity, elder justice, person-centered practices, and evidence-informed approaches across all goal areas through Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) leadership. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) leadership.

Building a Statewide SDOH Strategy

As the Policy and Planning Director, I have the privilege of leading the development and implementation of our statewide SDOH strategy. This strategy aims to create a healthier and more equitable society by tackling the social and environmental factors influencing health outcomes. It is imperative to address health disparities to guarantee that everyone, regardless of their background, has an equitable chance to enjoy a healthy and satisfying life. The strategy strives for a future where innovative concepts and community-led solutions are central to dismantling health disparities and fostering the comprehensive well-being of communities.

Representation Is Key

Representation matters because it ensures that diverse voices and perspectives are heard and considered in decision-making. MDHHS recognizes the importance of representation and continually gathers information from community partners and residents to inform its work. Within the MDHHS SDOH policy team, I have taken proactive steps to assemble diverse leaders to provide insights and guidance for collaborative efforts. My leadership goal is to cultivate a culture where every team member feels appreciated and empowered to share their viewpoints, nurturing an atmosphere of transparency and mutual regard.

Convening diverse partners is essential for fostering inclusive and practical solutions to complex societal challenges, particularly in public health. By garnering a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and expertise, these partnerships can better identify and address the root causes of health disparities and inequities. Through intentional engagement with our SDOH task forces, advisory councils, and SDOH Community Influencer Program, we strive to build trust and longstanding collaborative relationships. By prioritizing diversity and inclusion in our engagement efforts, MDHHS seeks to create policies and initiatives that genuinely reflect the needs and experiences of the communities we serve. However, there is always room for improvement. As public health leaders, we should continually assess how we engage with the community to ensure we build longstanding relationships.

Healing Historical Wounds

Reflecting on the Michigan initiatives makes me proud to be a public health leader. However, having lost two of my grandparents before they reached the age of 70 and remembering the challenges that they endured throughout their lives, I continue to feel disheartened.

Many factors impact healthcare outcomes for the aging population, especially for BIPOC communities. Navigating the social and healthcare system is challenging. The digital divide, the deeply ingrained distrust in healthcare, and the rekindling of past traumas are just a few additional barriers for the aging population, which are further compounded in minority and low-income populations. As leaders in public health, it is crucial to continuously enhance our community engagement practices, ensuring that our programs and policies accurately reflect the community's needs. This involves:

  • Cultivating solid relationships with community partners to reach our most vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly, effectively.
  • Actively pursuing opportunities for professional growth, such as anti-bias and cultural competency training.
  • Taking proactive steps to eliminate barriers to partnerships by reforming grant-making procedures, promoting flexibility in program design, and refining our community engagement strategies to capture the invaluable perspectives the community offers entirely. Embracing collaborative decision-making processes is essential.
  • Advocating for policies like the Caregivers Act, which removes barriers for family members to care for their aging loved ones, aligning with culturally competent care. Prioritizing equitable solutions that address not only socioeconomic disparities but also the underlying inequalities among minority groups should be an essential aspect of policy reform discussions.

Our commitment to investing in the elderly will benefit future generations, particularly in minority and low-income communities. Implementing policies that tackle these disparities would help ease the financial and emotional challenges caregivers face while promoting stability across generations.

James Bell III, Chief of Staff, Michigan DHHS, and DELPH Cohort 1 Scholar, was a subject matter expert and reviewer for this blog post on health equity and healthy aging.