The U.S. has been, and will continue to be, the global poster child for freedom. The topic seems to show up in political and presidential conversations as frequently as selfies on social media. The very essence of Americana is based on honoring this value — to live in a place where everything you can imagine is supposed to be within reach if you’re willing to work hard enough. This is why we have laws, publicly funded basic education and social welfare programs — to give everyone a fair shot at accomplishing their own personal American dream. Somewhere over the years, however, between running from white-haired red coats and running with touch screen watches, we began to take a of a core aspect of the American dream for granted — our health.
To say the U.S. is a healthy country is a bit of stretch. Ask any European about their image of an American and it’s likely to include an obese Wal-Mart shopper riding a motorized shopping cart. While none of us have a “right to health” as plainly laid out as our freedom of speech or freedom of religion, our very “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is dependent on the collective and individual health of the nation. Despite the undeniable and indispensable value of health in fostering a prosperous and just society, far too often we fail to fully recognize and invest in ensuring this unwritten freedom for our citizens.
This isn’t to say that fostering health is easy — quite the contrary. Any public nutrition program, warning or tax on harmful products, workplace safety laws or parental leave allowances will always disproportionately benefit some segment of the population over another. The task for those who work for the greater good of society, our elected leaders, is to pick policies and interventions that benefit the most people while harming the least. When it comes to health-centered decisions, this often equates to balancing economic viability with empowering individuals to attain and maintain good health. Often this balance is not achieved, and we quietly decrease the individual’s freedom to be well in the name of saving money and increasing profits, a trade-off that robs us of the potential contributions healthy citizens would have provided.
The examples are numerous.
We make sure our kids get a “balanced meal” at school lunches, but force schools to rely on profits from junk food-selling vending machines to balance the budget. We have national campaigns to get kids more active, yet increasingly direct funding away from physical education to “more important” subjects. We tell mothers that breast- feeding is the best nutrition source for newborns, but fail to provide the necessary workplace support or maternity leave to make it possible. We tell people to drink more water, but react slowly or not at all when entire communities are poisoned from lead contamination. We recommend eating more fruits and vegetables, but do nothing to make that feasible for the single parent working paycheck to paycheck. We eventually stop dreaming of a long healthy life and instead accept a societally imposed rule that only some of us can be healthy — that health is not an indispensable resource we should be free to foster, but rather reserved for a privileged few.
As we move closer to the presidential election in November, we will continue to hear about foreign policy, education reform and our crumbling infrastructure — all immensely important challenges facing our country — but if any presidential candidate truly wants “a future to believe in” or to “make America great again,” we must start seeing health as one of society’s most valuable resources. Healthcare reform, while necessary, is not enough. Relying on healthcare reform to change our nation’s health is like jumping a car every time you need to travel instead of buying a new battery — getting a new battery can be expensive and they seem to weigh more every time you pick one up, but you and your car will be much happier if you do.
The American dream is sick, but I believe the very values that push us to ensure all of our treasured freedoms also can empower our journey towards a healthier nation. The pride we take in being a country of boundless opportunity — in the freedom to make our dreams a reality — should drive us to create a new paradigm.
It is time for “the land of the free and the home of the brave” to be brave enough to fight for our collective and individual freedom to live a healthy American dream.
Wyatt Beckman is a junior health science major from Ness City, Kan.
This editorial originally appeared in the April 21 edition of the Index. Be sure to pick up a copy on newsstands now.