This Black History Month, it’s important to reflect on the urgency of health care access in the black community and the strong legacy that ties this deeply essential work to the civil rights movement.
Activists during the civil rights era recognized poverty as a major hurdle to achieving equality and other basic rights–such as healthcare–and this challenge continues to this day. At Children’s Health Fund (CHF), we believe resolving this issue is core to the well-being of all our nation’s children. CHF came into existence in 1987 to ensure children living in the most impoverished conditions in New York City had access to high-quality health care.
Poverty continues, then as now, to be the most significant predictor of health, and African Americans are almost three times as likely to be living in poverty as compared to whites. People who are impoverished experience difficulty accessing healthy food, live in overcrowded or substandard housing, lack clean water, and live in a reality where health becomes secondary to survival and safety.
Even as our society faces these disparities, we recognize the efforts of activists and champions that fought and endeavor still to ensure communities across America, struggling with poverty and systemic racism, have the healthcare they critically need and deserve.
CHF stands on the shoulders of these leaders, some of whom we’ll highlight this month, like the Honorable Olly Neal. In 1970 he became the executive director of Lee County Cooperative Clinic in Mariana, Arkansas. A clinic, whose opening sparked racial tensions with its mission to serve the poor and mostly black population of this area. His story sets the stage to understand how activists were critical in fighting racist structures that opposed healthcare for black communities.
Even before this, in the late ’60s, both black and white crusaders fought to open the first community health centers designed to serve communities engulfed by poverty in Boston and the Mississippi Delta. In places like Mississippi, families had to travel for hours to see doctors, that is if they could afford it. It was not rare for children brought to these centers to be given medical prescriptions for food to treat malnourishment.
As these health centers got off the ground and developed into essential pillars of communities, people like Aurelia Jones-Taylor played pivotal roles. The CEO of our program at the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center in Mississippi, for more than 30 years, Aurelia has ensured that thousands of people in rural and disadvantaged parts of Mississippi benefit from full-service and innovative health centers that go beyond medical services to provide holistic support. These include resources related to transportation, jobs, and other social services that are essential for communities to rise out of poverty.
With nearly 1,400 community health centers (also called Federally Qualified Health Centers) now in existence across the country, we are making progress but still fighting to break down the barriers that prevent children and families in poverty from getting the basic care they need to thrive.
In places like Watts and Compton, which are striving to overcome extreme violence and poverty, there is still a pressing need to ensure families are connected to ongoing care and resources. We’ll spotlight modern-day crusader, Michele Rigsby Pauley, RN, MSN, CPNP, the director of our Los Angeles program, who has worked in these communities for decades. Michele continues to see a great need to bring health services where people need them and does this through mobile medical clinics, but also goes to great lengths to connect people to fixed clinics and other services they need.
CHF’s work to replicate programs based on mobile and fixed site clinics that connect children struggling in poverty to needed and ongoing care has never been more relevant. But we don’t, can’t, and will not stop there. We help ensure families have safe places to live, food on their tables, and other supports that go beyond medical care but that are essential to health. In our programs, social workers collaborate hand in hand with nurses and doctors creating a safety net to make sure our young patients don’t fall through the cracks. In fact, this holistic approach to health care was and continues to be the foundational concept of community health centers and is central to our work as an organization.
As a nation, our work to equalize health disparities is far from done. And while there is so much more we need to do, at CHF we are humbled by the leaders both inside and outside of our network. Further, we are inspired by the thousands of children we see across our programs on a regular basis—children who, with your support, are defying the odds.