An Issue Americans Agree On: Investing in Public Health

Despite political divisions, they understand how important it is for improving their lives and their communities.
December 5, 2018
In Seattle, the King County Public Health Department implemented a restaurant grading system. (J.B. Wogan)
By Brian C. Castrucci  |  Contributor
CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation

While the public's focus is on the pending transition in Congress, 2019 will bring significant changes at the state level that can have a major impact on Americans' daily lives, including the health of their communities.

For state and local leaders who want to pursue a bipartisan agenda, including the 20 new governors who will take office in 2019, a new national survey shows that investing in public health is not only smart policy but also good politics. In a rare level of consensus across political affiliation, geography, gender, race, income and education, 89 percent of Americans said they believe that public health departments play an important role in the health of their communities.

Commissioned by the de Beaumont Foundation, the poll also finds that 66 percent of voters believe every community should have basic public health protections and that 57 percent are willing to pay higher taxes to ensure that everyone has access to those services.

Voters placed a particular emphasis on stopping the spread of communicable diseases, bringing other government agencies together in emergencies, protecting environmental quality and supporting child and maternal health. Expressing support for these basic public health protections were overwhelming majorities of African-Americans (85 percent), liberals (78 percent), Hispanics (75 percent), mothers (74 percent), working-class people (72 percent) and Northeasterners (71 percent), along with slimmer majorities of conservatives (55 percent), white men (53 percent) and fathers (51 percent).

This consensus of support offers policymakers a rare opportunity to get ahead of spiraling health care costs by addressing problems before they become crises. As newly elected leaders take office in 2019, these survey results should embolden them to use the most powerful tool at their disposal to improve lives and communities. Policies that promote community health in areas like clean air, affordable housing, food safety, and reasonable tobacco and alcohol controls can help people live longer, better lives.

Across the country, leaders who genuinely want to make a difference are realizing that health is about more than health care and that policy and partnerships are the key to improving long-term health. This year, for example, San Antonio became the first city in Texas to adopt a Tobacco 21 ordinance, which raises the minimum legal age for tobacco and nicotine sales to 21. This successful effort was led by the mayor, the director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and a coalition comprising the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the American Heart Association.

Kansas City updated its "Complete Streets" ordinance to help improve access to safe and accessible transportation, including walking and biking. Fort Worth, Texas, and Louisville, Ky., strengthened their smoke-free laws by prohibiting smoking in bars and long-term-care facilities. In Seattle, the King County public health department implemented a new restaurant grading system that requires food establishments to post safety-inspection grades in their windows. This helps empower consumers to make informed choices about where to eat and reduces foodborne illnesses.

The important work of state and local governmental public health departments not only helps to keep people healthy, but also protects against threats that people may not even be aware of. Even with today's political divisions, it is clear that Americans value these services. By supporting and expanding public health services, policymakers have the opportunity to garner political goodwill and dramatically improve our nation's health and well-being.