Bill Walker

Bill Walker is a strategic communications specialist with decades of experience in both journalism and activism. After one career as a national correspondent for newspapers including The Denver Post and The Sacramento Bee, he joined the environmental movement as a media officer for Greenpeace. He went on to work for the California League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Working Group and Earthjustice before launching a consulting practice in Berkeley, Calif. Besides HIP, his current clients include Friends of the Earth and The Story of Stuff Project.

How Ferguson Became Ferguson: The Legacy of Racist Public Policy

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, much anger and blame has been directed at racism within the Ferguson, Missouri police department and the militarization of local law enforcement agencies across the nation. But in a compelling new report from the Economic Policy Institute, legal scholar Richard Rothstein says those are not the root causes of the tragedy, or of other similar killings of unarmed African American men and boys. He argues that decades of explicitly racist policies at all levels of government created the conditions that turned a small St. Louis suburb into a racial powder keg:

We flatter ourselves that the responsibility is only borne by rogue police officers, white flight, and suburbanites’ desire for economic homogeneity. Prosecuting the officer who shot Michael Brown, or investigating and integrating Ferguson’s police department, can’t address the deeper obstacles to racial progress.

Rothstein is a senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the UC Berkeley law school. In The Making of Ferguson, he lays out in damning, impeccably documented detail how “deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and agencies of the federal, state and local governments” have worked together to isolate African Americans in communities with few jobs, inadequately funded schools and substandard services. In St. Louis and elsewhere, he writes, those governmental policies included:

  • Zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black neighborhoods as commercial or industrial;
  • Segregated public housing projects that replaced integrated low-income areas;
  • Federal subsidies for suburban development conditioned on African American exclusion;
  • Federal and local requirements for . . . property deeds that prohibited resale of white-owned property to African Americans;
  • Tax favoritism for private institutions that practiced segregation;
  • Municipal boundary lines designed to separate black neighborhoods from white ones and to deny necessary services to the former;
  • Real estate, insurance and banking regulators who tolerated and sometimes required racial segregation;
  • Urban renewal plans whose purpose was to shift black populations from central cities . . . to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson.

In remarkable detail, Rothstein traces the history of Ferguson, from “a sundown town from which African Americans were banned after dark” to the first black families to move in during the late 1960s, to the “blockbusting” tactics real estate agents used to scare white families into selling en masse when any African Americans moved in, and how government agencies not only tolerated but encouraged white flight. He shows convincingly how decades of government-sanctioned housing segregation are in large part responsible for the economic inequality that divides white and black America today: After World War II, federal policies helped millions of white families acquire property, which has appreciated in value, creating wealth that is passed down to succeeding generations. Denying or impeding African Americans the opportunity to buy property and accumulate wealth has left them much poorer than whites.

And make no mistake, this is a public health issue. Income and education are perhaps the most important, and most definitively established, social determinants of health. The poorer you are and the less education you have, the more likely you are to suffer from chronic disease such as asthma or heart problems, to smoke, to become obese, to suffer from stress or depression, to go to jail or prison. Lower income means decreased access to health care. Poor people are more likely to live in substandard housing. People of color are far more likely to go to jail or prison.

We must realize that what happened in Ferguson, and what continues to happen every day across the country, cannot be fixed by integrating police departments and providing officers with better training in community relations. The changes needed are fundamental and won’t happen overnight, but Rothstein offers some immediate steps:

  • Prohibit landlords from refusing to accept tenants whose rent is subsidized under the Section 8 housing assistance program;
  • Require suburbs to repeal zoning ordinances that prohibit construction of housing that lower-income residents can afford;
  • Require all communities to permit development of housing to accommodate a fair share of its region’s low-income and minority populations.

Every American who wants to understand how and why Ferguson happened should read this report.

Overcrowded Prisons, Immigration Reform and the Power of the Presidency

In his fifth State of the Union Address, President Obama declared that he would defy a do-nothing, obstructionist Congress and use his executive authority to address the ever-growing gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us. “America does not stand still,” the president said, “and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers and other executive actions to fight inequality are important steps, and they are directly connected to improving public health. But there are other crises the president can tackle with the power of his office. Two of the most serious are, like inequality, strong determinants of public health.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Bill Keller points to “the famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars.” With 2.3 million prisoners, the incarceration rate in the United States is by far the highest in the world – with only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have locked up nearly one-fourth of the prisoners on earth.

Much of the increase in incarceration has come from harsh mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders and people with mental health issues – people who need treatment, not punishment. HIP’s Health Impact Assessment on reducing the prison population in Wisconsin found that sending non-violent offenders to treatment rather than prison would mean healthier lives, stronger families and safer communities. Treatment is much more likely to help people recover from substance abuse, reduce the need for future psychiatric care, and improve the health of children by keeping their parents at home, not behind bars.

And yet, writes Keller, Obama – a former community organizer in inner-city Chicago – “has had surprisingly little to say about the shadow cast by prisons on the families left behind, about the way incarceration became the default therapy for drug addicts and the mentally ill, about the abject failure of rehabilitation.” Although Attorney General Eric Holder has recently been more bold about urging states to rethink the cruel consequences of incarceration, the Administration has done little to reduce drug prosecutions or provide more money for treatment programs. Of the 8,000 people in federal prison because of outdated crack cocaine laws, which affect young black men disproportionately, last year Obama pardoned only three.

In the same issue, the Times reported on the annual congress of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant youth, many of whom were once undocumented themselves and whose parents are undocumented. Many Dreamers live in daily fear that their families will be torn apart by the arrest and deportation of their parents.

During his presidency, Obama has deported almost 2 million undocumented immigrants, more than any other president. HIP’s recent HIA on immigration reform found that if deportations continue at the present rate, each year more than 150,000 children will have a parent taken away, pushing more than 80,000 households into poverty and triggering poorer health or behavioral problems for approximately 100,000 children.

The Dreamers called on the president “to cut back programs that have greatly expanded the reach of federal immigration authorities” and grant deportation deferrals to parents of the more than 520,000 youth who have also received deferrals. In words that echo our HIA, United We Dream’s Cristina Jimeniz said: “These deportations are ripping our families apart; this has to stop. And we know the president has the power to do it.”

Stress, Status and the Myth of Upward Mobility

In the space of five days last month, The New York Times carried a pair of remarkable articles that taken together show that the growing gap between rich and poor Americans is not just a political and economic problem, but a public health crisis.

In “Status and Stress,” freelance science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff detailed how the stress inflicted by poverty and discrimination has very real consequences for health and well-being – higher rates of depression, heart disease, obesity and other illnesses. Even if a child from lower socioeconomic strata climbs the ladders of income and status as she grows older, the stress imprinted on her when young can harm her physical and mental health well into adulthood.

The connection between status, stress and health is hardly a new topic in the public health world – HIP’s Research Director Holly Avey recently discussed it in this blog post – but significant that it was featured so prominently in the nation’s paper of record. It was the other article, “In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters,” that was both startling and chilling.

Times Staff Writer David Leonhardt reported on the dramatic disparities in income mobility in different parts of the country, drawing on a new report by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Researchers found that in some metropolitan regions, mostly on the coasts, children born into the lowest income levels had a markedly greater chance of growing up to reach the highest level than in other regions, mostly in the South and Rust Belt. In Atlanta, the odds of reaching the top after starting at the bottom were about 1 in 25. But even in Salt Lake City and the Bay Area, the odds of climbing the ladder were little better than 1 in 9.

In other words, the American Dream of starting with nothing and reaching the top is increasingly just that – a dream. Paired with the findings on stress and status, the barriers to upward mobility start to look like a life sentence, offering little hope that Americans of lower status can rise to the ranks of the wealthy and healthy. When assessing the consequences of public policy, we have a moral obligation to consider not just its political and economic impacts but its implications for health and well-being.

Our most important audience: People

Guest blog post by Bill Walker

Health Impact Assessments are powerful tools for bringing analytical rigor to evaluating the effects of proposed policies on public health. However, as we establish the authority and legitimacy of our findings for decision makers – legislators, other elected officials, health departments and the like – we can’t forget that our first obligation is to inform and empower those we are trying to help. As Jennifer Lucky recently pointed out in our blog, From the HIP, our mission – challenging the inequities that harm the health of our communities – means we must think creatively about how we communicate with not only stakeholders but the public.

Aggressive, accessible public outreach campaigns can drive policy change far faster than shelves of dry research. Take chemical contaminants in consumer products. Scientists documented the health harms of flame retardants and bisphenol A, but it has taken media-driven advocacy campaigns – through investigative journalism, TV coverage, interactive websites, online petitions, Facebook and Twitter – to make Americans aware of the risks and push regulators to take action.

I’m new to HIA – after a career as a reporter and two decades of crafting media strategies for environmental groups – and well aware of the debate over whether practitioners should be scientists or advocates. I believe we can be both. There’s a line we can walk marked on one side by making certain our work is credible and on the other by sounding a public alarm when called for. Some thoughts:

Prioritize journalists 

In a time of shrinking resources and a focus on scandal and celebrity, it’s easy to think it’s a waste to pursue thoughtful, in-depth mainstream news coverage. Actually it’s an opening to shape debate, as news organizations often no longer have resources to invest in data-driven analysis. If journalists are presented in a timely fashion with a clear and well-argued study that makes an important point about policy, coverage can still drive the conversation beyond the halls of official discourse.

We recently saw this with an HIA for WISDOM, a network of Wisconsin congregations who are campaigning to cut the state’s prison population through expansion of treatment programs for non-violent offenders. By crafting our report to be concise, accessible and newsworthy to journalists whom WISDOM already had cultivated relationships with, we generated dozens of news stories and editorials, including a Sunday Dialogue in The New York Times. 

Speak plainly and decisively

The style of writing often favored by researchers is burdened with jargon, acronyms, the passive voice and a reluctance to speak strongly about or quantify findings. Dense, jargon-filled writing is inaccessible to both journalists and their audiences and will drive neither news coverage nor public debate. Instead, we must seek to frame our conclusions in the simplest, strongest and most unequivocal language possible.

Where evidence is inconclusive we should say so, but when it is convincing in one direction we need not bend over backwards to say “on the other hand.” We should when appropriate find a way to quantify projected impacts – how many people will be affected. If cost projections are defensible and appropriate, make them. Some have concerns about reducing the richness of HIA analysis down to a dollar figure – this is an active debate that even HIP engages in – but in many cases the savings from a proposed policy will free resources that can be devoted to improving other health outcomes, so the economic impacts are actually health impacts.

Use multimedia and other online tools

By far the best presentation of an HIA I have found is the Second Street study in Albuquerque, N.M. Bernalillo County Place Matters commissioned an interactive website with video and audio from affected residents, compelling graphics, all presented in a jargon-free, user-friendly manner. Note that the “formal” HIA is available through the site, but the designers clearly recognize that the formal report’s audience is limited and specialized.

Let’s hope that the future brings more of this innovation, and remain open to even more accessible ways to communicate.