A Lesson from Dr. King: Health Equity is Everyone’s Business


One of the CDC Foundation’s strategies for impact is to integrate health equity principles into all our work. Some may ask why is health equity important? The best way to answer that question is starting with another: what are the costs of health inequities, even to those not experiencing them directly?

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, it is fitting to ask how he can help us understand the answer to these questions.

Dr. King once wrote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

He also stated “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” In that same speech, he said that “No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how interrelated our individual wellbeing is with that of others, not just in our communities but globally. The COVID-19 virus did not pay attention to our artificially drawn boundaries of nations, states or neighborhoods.

Our transportation systems were dependent on the health and wellbeing of the people driving buses and operating trains. Our ability to get food was dependent on the people working in meat processing facilities or working check-out lines at the grocery store, which increased their risk of illness and death.

We are not just connected when it comes to infectious diseases, however. The reality is our social and economic wellbeing are inextricably linked—all the time. We know, as the World Health Organization states, health is more than the mere absence of disease or injury. It is not just about surviving; it is the complete state of physical, mental and social well-being.

When the conditions necessary for health are not available—like safe, decent housing; clean air and safe drinking water; safe places to be physically active; availability of healthy, affordable food; reliable transportation to living-wage jobs—health inequities will result.

These health inequities come at a terrible emotional cost in human suffering through premature death and preventable illness. But what about the social and economic costs that are experienced by all of us?

It is nearly impossible to try to quantify all of these intangible social costs. But we can count some things. In 2018, W.K. Kellogg Foundation released a compelling report, the Business Case for Racial Equity. Some examples of the astonishing costs of preventable health inequities are:

  • In the United States, by 2050, we could save $150 billion in medical care and $80 billion in lost productivity each year if we eliminated racial disparities in health.
  • By 2050, increased tax revenues at the local, state and federal level from greater earnings of healthier people and decreased public spending would lead to savings of $1.4 trillion for federal revenue and $325 billion for state and local revenue. Those are significant numbers for a nation with a national debt of more than $30 trillion.

This analysis doesn’t even include the savings that could come from eliminating health inequities along other key dimensions like gender, immigration or disability status, LGBTQ+ identity or geography. The full cost of all health inequities is truly staggering and unsustainable.

It’s not hard to imagine how all of us, whether we experience health inequities directly or not, could benefit from the investments in sustaining high-quality schools, affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods, efficient transportation systems, and enjoyable parks, outdoor spaces, recreation facilities and libraries. And, critically, robust public health systems should be included too.

Dr. King understood this on a fundamental level. He was assassinated in Memphis while there to support striking sanitation workers as part of his campaign for better housing, wages, jobs and schools—the essential building blocks of health.

Relegating a substantial portion of our population to higher risk of premature death and preventable disease means we are choosing to not only poorly invest our economic resources, but it also means we are squandering the talent and vital contributions our communities, nation and world need.

These are people who could develop innovations to solve thorny problems like those related to climate change or create successful businesses that employ their neighbors and create economic value. Why would we choose to confront the future with all of its daunting challenges with only part of our team healthy and ready to go?

Dr. King would have us embrace the idea that health and wellbeing are not a zero-sum game. When health improves for those who have been marginalized for any reason—geography, gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, language spoken, immigration status, ability—the benefits accrue not just to those individuals and populations but to all of us.

As we celebrate the work and legacy of Dr. King, let us take to heart his belief about our “inescapable network of mutuality” and the idea we are all interdependent. We all will gain—healthy, prosperous, vibrant communities, as well as economic resilience—when we work for health equity together.

Lauren Smith Headshot
Lauren A. Smith, MD, MPH, is the chief health equity and strategy officer for the CDC Foundation.