In a civilized country, access to safe drinking water shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s a necessity as the foundation of a healthy life.
The lead water crisis in Flint, Mich., should never happen in any community. But we are all Flint.
Incredibly in 2016, more than 1 million Californians lack reliable access to safe drinking water.
In the eastern Coachella Valley in Southern California, families in the poorest neighborhoods struggle with contaminated well water. In the San Joaquin Valley, uranium, a key ingredient for nuclear plants and atom bombs, has been detected in drinking water. Some farm schools are being forced to buy bottled water because the drinking fountains are off-limits. For example, Waukena Elementary School in Tulare County was spending $10,000 a year on bottled water, money that would have bought a lot of books. To make matters worse, an Associated Press investigation found that authorities are doing little to inform the public about the risk.
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These crises are shocking, but in some ways not surprising. In Flint, 57 percent of residents are African American and more than 41 percent of residents are poor. In the eastern Coachella Valley, 99 percent of residents are Latino. The San Joaquin Valley consistently ranks among the nation’s most impoverished areas.
See a pattern? People of color and families with very little money have virtually no power and they are concentrated in neighborhoods with both natural and man-made environmental conditions that endanger health. We have devalued their lives.
The symptom is unsafe drinking water, but the real illness is injustice.
The United States spends nearly $3 trillion a year on health care – more than twice as much as any country in the world – yet we rank relatively low on many measures of health and well-being. And in areas where we have made some progress (such as life expectancy), the gains are not equally shared. For the poorest Americans, life expectancy is actually declining.
When it comes to our health, our ZIP codes matter more than our genetic codes. Only about 20 percent of health status has anything to do with doctors and hospitals because where we live has a powerful effect on how healthy we are.
We need a new direction. That is why The California Endowment created Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year, $1 billion program that will help 14 low-income communities across the state improve their health by improving the places they live.
Flint may have Michael Moore, Cher and Sandra Bernhard advocating for it, but the Building Healthy Communities movement has thousands of residents and concerned citizens working together for real change. They understand that the health of a community doesn’t rely just on doctor’s visits, but also on the power of people to participate in reshaping the policies that determine the environments where they live.
In 2016, improving our health depends on creating a better democracy that is truly inclusive.
Anthony Iton is senior vice president of The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program. He can be contacted at AIton@calendow.org.