By Robin L. Flanigan

Poverty is a key driver of health problems and inequity, according to the most comprehensive examination to date of health disparities across the nine-county Finger Lakes region.

Yet while poverty affects all racial and ethnics groups, health outcomes for African Americans are generally significantly worse than socioeconomic status alone would predict.

Common Ground Health’s newly updated  Health Equity Chartbook uses data analysis from multiple sources and more than 200 data graphs and maps to understand these and other inequities—and to inform efforts to eliminate them.

The health planning organization has looked at race/ethnicity in its reports before, but this is the first time it explored the impact of socioeconomic status and geography on health outcomes as well.

“Only by looking at these factors in an integrated analysis could we really tease apart what’s going on,” says Marc Solomon, Common Ground senior research associate and the report’s author. “Socioeconomic status explains a lot, but African Americans face an additional set of racial inequities and stressors that lead to worse outcomes.”

This deeper dive found that African Americans have a 74 percent higher premature mortality rate than whites. Perhaps more striking, at every socioeconomic status level, African Americans have significantly worse premature mortality rates than their white and Latino peers, a disparity largely due to heart disease.

Racism is just one example of the fundamental and persistent social and structural inequities that shape living conditions and behaviors, both of which influence health status. Only by understanding and doing something about these root causes can any effort toward large and sustainable improvement in health equity be achieved, says Albert Blankley, director of research and analytics at Common Ground.

“We should be thinking of these inequities as a community to address them from a systems, structure and policy perspective to resolve what we’re seeing,” says Blankley.

Looking at asthma provides a glimpse into how inequities affect the prevention and management of illness. People are more likely to develop asthma if they live in poor housing conditions and are exposed to factors such as secondhand smoke and chronic, acute stress, all of which are more common among poorer populations. Accessing the right clinical care can be especially difficult, given transportation limitations and inflexible work schedules.

As a result, the rate of asthma-related emergency department visits is much higher for high-poverty neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot more going on here than we’re able to explain,” says Blankley.

To further decipher the barriers to optimum health, Common Ground recently conducted a community health equity survey completed by nearly 7,000 residents across the region. Results are forthcoming.

“We took a good step forward to quantify and understand the extent of the disparities, and now we’re looking to better understand the underlying causes,” says Solomon.

The 185 page chartbook is a free public resource for use in presentations, grants, reports and other efforts to improve health. Read and download the full report here.