Closing the Health and Wealth Gap: Wharton CEO Seeks Solutions

“I’m encouraged by the meaningful conversation and by our shared commitment to improving the lives of so many people who aren’t getting what they need to thrive.” – Fareeda Griffith, Managing Director of Wharton CEO

Health is wealth, as the saying goes. Yet millions of Americans lack access to affordable, quality medical care because of who they are, where they live, and how much money they make. These circumstances, born from centuries of structural racism and inequality, have created a persistent gap that leaves minority groups languishing in nearly every measure of both health and wealth– from heart disease to maternal mortality and from savings to unemployment.

“We have the highest costs of health care in an industrialized nation and not the highest outcomes,” said Dr. Joshua M. Levine, a professor and chief of Neurocritical Care with Penn Medicine. “Public policy should be based on data, but it’s often not. That’s the insolvable problem.”

Levine was among nearly two dozen participants who joined the first roundtable discussion hosted by the Wharton Coalition for Equity and Opportunity, an initiative begun by Dean Erika James to seek research-driven solutions for some of the most intractable socioeconomic dilemmas.

The Oct. 3 roundtable, “Health Care and Financial Wellness for All,” was also hosted by TIAA Institute, the thought leadership and research arm of TIAA. Experts from health care, academia, and nonprofits gathered in the sunny boardroom of Huntsman Hall on campus to share information and talk about ways to begin closing the health equity gap.

“I’m so proud that my alma mater has initiated this conversation that we’re having today,” said Surya P. Kolluri, a Wharton MBA graduate who serves as head of TIAA Institute. “This is the starting point. I’m hopeful that we can continue the conversation, the research, the grants, and the projects.”

The half-day event was organized into two parts, with the first session on health disparities and the second on financial well-being. In 10-minute presentations, each expert offered wide-ranging data that showed how health and wealth are inextricably linked. For example:

  • Meredith Doherty, Penn professor of social work and nonprofit leadership, cited findings that reveal 40% of people with cancer deplete their assets within two years of diagnosis. Cancer survivors are 2.6 times more likely to file for bankruptcy. Risk factors for these outcomes are highest for women, those on Medicaid or uninsured, retired or unworking persons, and nonwhites.
  • The City of Philadelphia is more than 40% Black, yet white patients make up 72% of all the patients seen in Penn Neurology, according to Aaron Baldwin, genetic counselor at Penn’s Huntington Disease Center.
  • Long-term caregivers spend about $7,400 out-of-pocket a year on caregiving and lose about $33000 in wages, Social Security, and other benefits over their lifetime, according to data cited by Judith Kozlowski, senior fellow at the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement.

“I’m always struck by the statistic that 60% of your health is determined by your ZIP code much more than your genetic code,” said Diane Ty, senior director of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.

In addition to the science, many of the panelists shared personal stories about what keeps them connected and committed to the work of health equity. Shontay Delalue, chief diversity officer at Dartmouth College who studies the social determinants of health, grew up in poverty in Roselle, N.J., where eight of her neighbors died from heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions that disproportionately affect African Americans. Ty lost her father 10 years ago to Alzheimer’s disease, and the experience took a devastating emotional and financial toll on her family.

“I had a six-figure income, and this brought my family to our knees,” she said. “The cost of dementia is the single-largest cost in this country.”

The participants also talked about the promising work they are doing to close the health equity gap, including community outreach to raise awareness and build citizen trust in medicine; science-based experiments with guaranteed income to help offset medical costs; and programs, including one by Wharton finance professor Michael Roberts, to teach financial literacy to high school students.

These small-scale, innovative solutions are part of bigger changes that are needed, and CEO wants to help drive more of them. CEO faculty director Kenneth Shropshire said although it’s clear that major public policy shifts are necessary to address systemic inequalities, it’s important to promote the work people can do through their institutions to make a difference.

“There is value in pushing out as many of the little things we can do as possible, especially since we’re not in control of the bigger things,” he said.

Fareeda Griffith is managing director of CEO and organizer of the roundtable. A trained sociologist and demographer, she said her research into the social determinants of health inspired her to bring other like-minded experts together.

“I’m encouraged by the meaningful conversation and by our shared commitment to improving the lives of so many people who aren’t getting what they need to thrive,” Griffith said. “I think our partnership with TIAA Institute makes us uniquely positioned to find solutions and disentangle disparities on a local, national, and global level.”

— Angie Basiouny