Lisa Eramo

How Employers Can Address Poverty to Improve Health Outcomes

It’s a striking statistic: According to the United States Census Bureau, nearly 40 million U.S. residents live in poverty. Defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a condition in which “a person or group of people lack human needs because they cannot afford them,” poverty is one of many social determinants linked to adverse functioning and poor quality of life, leading to negative health outcomes.

When employers take proactive steps to address poverty and health, they not only improve employee satisfaction and retention, but they also enhance health outcomes, in turn reducing costly turnover and absenteeism.

The Connection Between Poverty and Health

There’s a reason poverty is a social determinant of health. When people can’t afford to pay for care, they often put off treatment. And those living in poverty can’t always afford to purchase healthy food or transportation to doctors’ appointments. The home and work environments of economically disadvantaged people may also include more risks for illness, such as mold or contaminated water.

These factors put individuals living in poverty at higher risk for chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity; higher rates of infant mortality; and a host of other health problems. They also face a significantly lower life expectancy.

“Poverty gets under our skin and leads to biological changes that can last into adulthood, even when circumstances change, and, in some cases, affect the next generation through maternal health,” Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations, told the University of California, San Francisco.

Poverty isn’t just an issue at the individual level — its adverse health effects also correlate with the presence of poverty within neighborhoods, according to Health Affairs. Health Affairs points out that this necessitates broader discussions about the availability of a range of infrastructural elements, from safe housing and medical facilities to grocery stores and fitness centers to bike paths and parks.

Progress on Poverty

The good news is that payers, physicians, employers and others are taking steps to address poverty and its effects on health. Countless state and federal community organizations, for example, strive to help end hunger and promote community development.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently announced it would expand policies to reduce prescription drug prices, increase community partnerships and foster technological innovations to address poverty and other social determinants of health among the elderly. In addition, state-based Medicare Savings Programs help Medicare beneficiaries pay for their premiums, and Medicare covers a multitude of free preventive services. All of this helps address the connection between poverty and health.

On the provider side, the American Academy of Family Physicians published a position paper outlining several ways in which family physicians can address poverty, including: Provide care coordination to address medical and socioeconomic needs, screen for socioeconomic challenges and connect patients to community health resources.

And on the payer side, the BCBS Institute is addressing “transportation, pharmacy, nutrition and fitness deserts in specific neighborhoods.” For example, the organization’s work with Lyft has enabled patients to access the ride share’s network of drivers, helping members without adequate transportation get to their doctors and neighborhood pharmacies at no cost. The Anthem Foundation has also partnered with the American Lung Association to help people in low-income housing units quit smoking.

What Employers Can Do

How do employers participate in moving the needle? There are many ways you can address poverty and health among your employees. Consider the following six options:

  1. Choose health plans with low deductibles so employees don’t delay or decline health care due to high out-of-pocket costs.
  2. Offer career ladders and tuition reimbursement to provide employees with avenues for upward economic mobility.
  3. Provide a free on-site fitness center or walking trails so employees can exercise at lunch or before and after work.
  4. Offer an on-site food pantry for employees in need.
  5. Offer an employer-assisted housing program to help employees find affordable housing in safe and healthy neighborhoods.
  6. Provide discounts for public transportation and ride-sharing services.

Employers play an important role in addressing poverty and health. By supporting overall health and wellness and providing employees with opportunities for economic growth, employers can help tackle this critical social determinant of health while also retaining a skilled workforce.