Washtenaw County’s Fight For Health Equality

In June 2020, the Washtenaw County Board of Health declared racism a public health crisis, joining governing bodies across Michigan. The statement ushered in a cause to create health equity. 

For Washtenaw county, this effort for health equality, spearheaded by the County Board of Commissioners and led by Washtenaw County Commissioner Justin Hodge, passed its resolution for health equality on July 1, 2020. 

Since identifying this public health crisis, Hodge states that the first step in addressing the issue is by applying action behind acknowledgement. 

“We want to be purposeful in Washtenaw County about identifying problems correctly. That’s how you can put appropriate resources behind it,” Hodges said. “It was never just for us to make a statement, we’re going to declare it as a public health crisis, and we’re going to also commit the funds to address it as such.” 

Racism in the United States has been one of the key components in causing health discrepancies between minorities and their white counterparts. 

In an article by the CDC, the article states, “Data show that racial and ethnic minority groups, throughout the United States, experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease, when compared to their White counterparts. Additionally, the life expectancy of non-Hispanic/Black Americans is four years lower than that of White Americans.” 

Additionally, research conducted by the CDC indicated that racism in this country affected every aspect of life for minorities, stating, “Research shows that centuries of racism in this country has had a profound and negative impact on communities of color. The impact is pervasive and deeply embedded in our society—affecting where one lives, learns, works, worships and plays and creating inequities in access to a range of social and economic benefits—such as housing, education, wealth, and employment.” 

For Washtenaw county, this data proved to be true.

In 2020, Washtenaw County was the eighth most economically segregated metropolitan region in the country, ranking 80 out of 83 counties in Michigan for income inequality. 

Additionally, Washtenaw also showed a 10-year difference in life expectancy between Black and white residents and a 17-year difference between Latino and white residents. The discrepancies did not conclude there, as 60% of African-Americans in Washtenaw County reportedly lived in low-opportunity areas with limited job growth. 

Hodge, who was sworn in as Washtenaw County Commissioner for District 5 on January 6, 2021, acknowledged these disparities between minorities and their counterparts. 

Having the health department collaborate with the Washtenaw Office of Community and Economic Development, the two departments remained purposeful when deciding how to allocate funds, Hodges states that the resources come down to which communities are impacted the most.

Hodges, whose first term came during the height of the pandemic, faced the first health crisis of minorities disproportionately impacted by COVID. 

“It comes down to being purposeful about how we allocate funds and the services we’re doing,” Hodges said. “To give an example, knowing that the pandemic hit our 48197 and 48198 zip codes the hardest and disproportionately affected our black and brown communities. We were purposeful and made sure that we targeted our vaccine distribution and then PPE to the areas that we know are hardest hit.” 

These statements were echoed by Washtenaw County Health Department health officer, Jimena Loveluck, who became health officer just five months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“It became essential to work through an equity lens, and bring a laser focus to ensuring equitable distribution of resources and services during COVID,” Loveluck said. 

During the height of the COVID pandemic, statistics showed that Non-Hispanic Black or African American people and Hispanic people are both more than twice as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white people. 

According to the 2021 census, minorities account for around 31% of Washtenaw county. Out of the county’s 369,390 residents, the two most represented minorities are the 12.2% of Black residents and 9% of Asian Americans. Hispanics and Latinos made up about 5% of the county’s population, while less than 4% of people identify as another race or mixed race. 

With the health discrepancies happening to every minority within the county region, Loveluck stated one of the keys to acknowledging the disparities was to work with minority-led organizations of community leaders. One essential organization to this process is the organization Mexiquenses en Michigan, a grassroots community organization established in 2016. 

“They’ve helped us build strong ties to the Latinx community. They have been instrumental in getting information out, and being the bridge to resources and services, and acting as those trusted messengers,” Loveluck said. “We also have worked with many African American faith leaders. When implementing our vaccine efforts, we started doing vaccine clinics at churches in partnership with these faith leaders. They are very trusted in their community.” 

While assessing how to redistribute funds and resources, The Washtenaw government benefited from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID Stimulus Package passed In March of 2021. Through the passage of ARPA, the Washtenaw County government received just over $71 million in two equal allotments (May 2021 and May 2022). 

According to Loveluck, this stimulus is essential towards Washtenaw’s progression towards health equality.

“Our goal is to have a team of community health workers based in various neighborhoods and areas of our county where we see greater health disparities,” Loveluck said. “We’re letting the community, through community engagement, help drive what those health priorities are that need to be addressed. Then working to build capacity, link to resources, and provide services that help to address those priorities.” 

To help allocate funds and resources, The County Board of Commissioners uses an opportunity index Hodges describes as a tool to identify different metrics across the Washtenaw area, such as health outcomes, educational attainment, job access, and overall opportunities across the Washtenaw community. 

Hodges attests that this tool has found a way to allocate funds and has been essential to providing resolutions while also guiding commissioners, county departments, county administration, and nonprofit partners in policy and programmatic decisions. 

According to Hodges, in Washtenaw county, area codes 48197-48198 are the areas most prone to these systemic inequities, as they’re the most minority-heavy areas. Hodges is vocal in his approach to assist these areas with as much aid as necessary. Hodges states that he’s passing an ongoing program evaluation which will allow the Board of Commissioners to reassess the progress of health equality across Washtenaw county. 

Additionally, Hodges has found great success in other areas of attacking these disparities across Washtenaw county, starting with his current plan to open a savings account program for all kids in Washtenaw Public Schools this coming school year. This program will allow all students who qualify for free-reduced lunch to have $500 invested into their accounts, while all other students will have accounts starting at the state minimum of $25. This funding will go towards a savings account program for college, trade school, or post-secondary education. The first set of funds for the savings accounts is expected to deposit around December 2022 or January 2023. 

Additionally, Hodges states that he has also been pushing for a Financial Empowerment Center, which will provide programs such as free financial counseling and programming to assist families struggling with debt. Hodges believes this center will be completed before the end of the year. 

“With traditional financial services, we’re hoping we’ll have a debt matching fund for families struggling in a cycle of debt and looking to pay some of that back. We’re also looking to have a downpayment assistance fund because we know that a person’s home is their largest asset generally, and homeownership is a way to disrupt generational poverty. So looking at this as a way to help people build some generational wealth and combat the affordable housing crisis we’re seeing,” Hodges said.

With these programs in place, the allocations of the ARPA, and an educational fund set to begin late this year, the Washtenaw Government is set on bringing forth health equality for all. 

“I hope that through the use of the program evaluators and the use of the opportunity index as a measurement tool, we will be able to track these improvements over time,” Hodges said. “I expect improvements because we’re focused on allocating funds that way.”

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