Milwaukee County became the first governing board in the nation to pass a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis in 2019. Since then, more than 90 cities and town councils and 40 local health departments have followed suit.
Now, a team of researchers is embarking on a study to determine whether declaring such a resolution actually leads to governmental action that enables change not only in health policies, but also in policies around other social inequities that have a direct impact on the health inequities.
Backed by a $244,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action program, the research team is using Milwaukee as a case study to identify the steps that are most likely to lead from resolution to policy changes, while also determining the effects of resolutions across the country.
“We want to learn if these declarations have led to policy change, helped to dismantle systemic racism or if they have helped to move the needle toward achieving health in all policies, across all sectors,” said Lorraine Lathen, president and founder of Jump at the Sun Consultants.
Lathen and Linnea Laestadius, associate professor of public health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, are leading the project. The team also includes UWM faculty members Douglas Ihrke and Young Cho.
In Milwaukee County, the researchers will determine the enabling factors and barriers that staff in leadership positions have experienced in trying to fulfill the policy vision outlined in the resolution.
“Research and data play a key role in our shared vision of achieving racial equity and becoming the healthiest county in the state,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. “More information, not less, is vital to tearing down the barriers that prevent effective investments in equity that help bridge gaps in health disparities and create better outcomes for residents.”
The group is looking at changes within organizations because those open the door for more permanent policy action, said Laestadius.
“What we hope to see is that, once the county starts to make internal changes, you see racial equity more explicitly factored into government decision-making,” Laestadius said. “Between agency procedures and county ordinances, there’s a real opportunity to create a more just environment where everyone in Milwaukee County can thrive.”
Medical care accounts for only 20% of health outcomes, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, while other social factors drive the remaining 80%. Since structural racism cuts across government sectors, such as housing, education, the environment and poverty, Laestadius said, ending inequities in health outcomes requires collaboration across all of these sectors and agencies.