Financial Health Is Public Health

As we take What It’s Worth and all its great ideas on the road this year, the theme that seems to be resonating with audiences is the intersection between physical health and financial health — not just in terms of a two-way, cause-and-effect relationship, but also how practical and “doable” the solutions can be if we start with children and families.

I think it is resonating for two reasons: First, it’s obvious. We’ve been hearing enough about toxic stress and its impacts on physical health that we all get it.

“If you want to lower my blood pressure, help me pay my electricity bill.”

Jason Purnell’s essay, “Financial Health is Public Health,” starts with a quote from a focus group participant that hits the nail on the head, “If you want to lower my blood pressure, help me pay my electricity bill.”

The physical stress stemming from not making ends meet, day to day, month to month, or year to year adds up. Over the course of a year, 6 in 10 families experience financial shocks that can cause significant strain, and make it harder to make ends meet — even months after the shock occurs (“How Do Families Cope with Financial Shocks?” Pew Charitable Trusts, Oct. 2015). And, as Dr. Purnell noted in his essay, families who experience financial stress are more likely to cope by smoking, eating, drinking alcohol, and leading a more sedentary lifestyle. Most directly, the 2016 Assets and Opportunity Scorecard reported that 14.3% of adults did not see a doctor in the past year because of cost; this number rises to 1 in 5 African-Americans and 1 in 4 for Latino adults.

And, as anyone struggling with an ongoing condition — from chronic pain to spring allergies — can attest, not feeling great physically makes it hard to do good work, to stay engaged, be productive, learn new things, and make good decisions. All of that, when it’s repeated over and over again, dramatically impacts your financial health when you can’t keep a job or get ahead in one, or do well in school. These pieces are all deeply intertwined.

We learned how those working on issues of child and family health are addressing this issue at the What It’s Worth event in December at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Malcolm Gaines from the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center told us about the shift his organizations and others have made to supporting “protective factors.” For example, if you help to strengthen parental resilience, enhance social connections, provide concrete support in times of need, build parenting skills, and support the socio-emotional development of the child, you can reduce the incidence of child abuse. This, of course, would improve the health and well-being outcomes for that child as an adult.

The lightbulbs in the room were flashing, as those of us who have been thinking about developing financial capability across the lifecycle immediately began making connections. Elizabeth Odders-White and Charles Kalish, in their stellar article in What It’s Worth, identify a similar set of things to address in order to develop financially capable and well adults, particularly by targeting young children. Building executive function — or the ability to think long-term and develop rules of thumb for sound financial decisions — is a key element to build in children that also has deep impacts on socio-emotional development. Similarly, if we examine the income volatility families are facing today (using research from Jennifer Tescher and Rachel Schneider), we begin to see how challenging it is to be financially “resilient” when help is unavailable and you are continually managing the ups and downs of a volatile financial life.

There is so much more to explore here in these connections, and lots to do to make more progress. I’m excited to see where the conversation goes next when we meet in Philadelphia on May 5, where the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and the School of Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania have organized a much-needed event to deepen our understanding of the connections between physical and financial health. We’ll be learning about new research and diving into how these connections are happening in practice with some of the nation’s leading experts, including Don Schwarz from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Carey Morgan from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.

If you can join us in person, we would love to have you. We will also share highlights throughout the day on Twitter @StrongFinFuture and with the hashtag #WhatItsWorthPHL. And as always, we hope to see you along the way as we take this important topic on the road.


By Kate Griffin, Vice President for Programs, CFED


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