History & Health: What’s the Connection?

For many of us, we have choices regarding our health: access to fresh food & clean water, options for household location, and access to green space or nature, for example. But for some communities, these choices of individual and family health are far more limited and create a culture of survival rather than enjoyment or experimentation of a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps not surprisingly, policy decisions can play a large role in these choices. And in some cases, policy from days gone by oftentimes continues to affect communities in present day. To take a closer look at this connection between history and health, let’s compare Cuyahoga County’s historical redlining map to a racial density map derived from the 2010 US Census.

“Redlining” is the unethical practice (in this case regarding real estate) of discriminating against residents and refusing financial service, based on where the resident lives. Commonly, residents within a certain area will be subjected to the systematic denial of financial services (mortgages, insurance, or loans) based on address rather than individual qualifications or credit history. The map of Redlining in Cuyahoga County depicts the community sectioned into four security ratings; green areas were deemed the most “safe,” and red deemed the most “dangerous.” The practice of redlining was made illegal through the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Redlining in Cuyahoga CountyWhile the practice of redlining ended before the 1970’s, evidence of redlining was still present in Cleveland’s communities in 2010. Comparing the map above to the map below, a higher density of minority groups is evident in areas which were deemed more “unsafe” in 1940. The source for this “one dot, one person” visual is based off individual responses of race alone from the 2010 Decennial Census.

Racial Density in Cuyahoga County, 2010

Racial Density in Cuyahoga County, 2010. Source: The Racial Dot Map, University of Virginia

While some communities have historically been disadvantaged, this is not to say that community organizations and partnerships are not working to create better opportunities and health equity. In Cuyahoga County, the Health Improvement Partnership (HIP-Cuyahoga) works to give everyone an opportunity to make healthier choices. To further learn about HIP-Cuyahoga’s effort, watch this video.

By acknowledging the history of the communities in which we work, we are able to better understand their unique and specific needs and challenges. Health equity requires a concentrated effort to increase opportunities for everyone to be healthier. This effort can be through the work that you do in your community, how and where you direct your purchasing power, understanding local policy changes and impacts, and reflecting on the lessons we have learned through history. Remember, you can be the change you wish to see in the world!






Vargo, LaurenLauren Vargo is a program coordinator in Cuyahoga County.