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March 23, 2021

Addressing Health Disparities Through Voter Engagement: A Social Worker’s Point of View

Our health is a product of our environment. Therefore, a healthy community should be one in which all residents have access to quality education, safe and healthy homes, adequate employment, transportation, nutrition, and quality health care. Right? Sadly, the dominant public narrative blames individuals for their poor health and renders the social determinants of health inequity invisible, despite a large body of research documenting racial and class disparities in health. When it comes to flipping the narrative to focus on the upstream determinants of those disparities, social workers bring a valuable perspective. The social work profession has roots in structural change efforts and is committed to navigating the various dimensions that influence health, such as work, family, and neighborhood.  

As a graduate student at Boston University’s School of Social Work, I’ve been learning about racial justice and cultural oppression. My interest in macro social work led me to an internship placement with Vot-ER, a nonprofit nonpartisan voter registration organization. It sounds simple. But here’s what you might not have taken away from that sentence: Vot-ER was founded by an Emergency Medicine Doctor in Boston after he was inspired by a social worker. Yes, you heard that correctly. A social worker! Social workers are essential; they make a difference in addressing inequities within our various systems. 

As a part of the Vot-ER Social Work team, I have quickly learned this organization is more than a simple voter registration organization. Vot-ER is advancing the public narrative for health equity and social justice. Vot-ER has not only been working diligently to register patients to vote, but also has been helping make social injustice more visible, specifically within the healthcare system. Vot-ER has helped me understand the relationship between voting and its effects on the social determinants of health. 

One of Vot-ER’s core beliefs is that “by voting for our health, we can preserve what works or demand change for the things that don’t.” The power of this belief comes from the affirmation that when a system or policy does not work for us, for our families, and for our community, we have the power to demand changes to that policy or system through our vote. Through Vot-ER’s work and vision, I have become a firm believer that we can address health disparities through voter engagement. 

We need to understand that access to healthcare, adequate transportation, safe homes, and quality education are components of healthy communities. However, we also need to be mindful that there are many barriers for many people to receive these services. Yagoda (2019) stated that people of color, low-income Americans, the uninsured, and young people are the most likely to be unregistered and to experience barriers to voter registration. Let’s take a look at lack of transportation as a barrier to civic engagement. Adequate transportation is often a prerequisite for accessing healthcare, employment, grocery stores, and other public services. Nevertheless, according to the American Public Health Association (2011), low-income persons, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities and people with limited English proficiency experience a transportation disadvantage.

You might be asking yourself, how do we build healthy communities? How do we break these barriers? As social workers, it is time for us to get involved in the work Vot-ER is doing. We need to start registering clients to vote in all settings whether it’s a hospital, a clinic, or a university. It is time for us to be a part of this nonpartisan process and help create a more inclusive and just democracy.