Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Public Good of Public Health

Jess Hale


By Jess Hale

August 25, 2014

At a time when domestic health policy in the United States contorts itself in near violent disagreements about the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, we would do well to remember the unheralded activities of public servants who labor in the realm of traditional public health and their invaluable contributions to the common good of our society. As important as access to public or private health insurance undoubtedly is to the health of millions of Americans, so is the ministry of public health to just about every single person. The contributions of public health promotion and protection to the well-being of Americans at large and of vulnerable populations in particular constitute a vastly unappreciated public good. The common good does not have to manifest itself in high-profile political combat.

Public health initiatives range from securing clean drinking water and safe food in restaurants to immunization programs to licensing and inspecting health care facilities to animal welfare to rural health services to programs that alleviate sexually transmitted diseases. Smoking and diabetes prevention are also part of public health. When the Ebola virus produces frightening headlines out of West Africa, we should remember that public health includes the control of communicable diseases and emergency preparedness for health emergencies. The Centers for Disease Control and state epidemiologists provide vital services that all Americans benefit from in significant, if often unobtrusive, ways.  In the first part of the twentieth century, mortality rates declined and life spans increased in this country in large part due to public health initiatives.

As an attorney for a state legislature, I have seen budget presentations from my state’s department of public health. I have listened to testimony about readiness for avian flu and the monitoring of the compounding of prescription drugs. I’ve seen childhood fatalities examined and good practices for the health of babies promoted. All of these programs and many more produce real public health payoffs. 

This reality came home to me a few months ago. My stepdaughter gave birth almost two months early to our first grandchild after an uneasy pregnancy. I was grateful for prenatal care and modern technology in the NICU. However, as a variety of families came to see their tiny, adorable, vulnerable babies, I noticed the posters on the walls reminding mothers and fathers about safe sleep practices and I saw nurses providing advice to anxious new parents. I could see how the public health activities behind those committee hearings I had been in had real life payoffs for families both rich and poor. I also thought of visiting nurse and other programs that more directly benefit economically vulnerable new mothers. Parents were being given valuable help to ensure that their babies would live and thrive.

While public health provides an important public good, its budget is not as publicly apparent or as massive as the Medicaid or Medicare budgets. Well-meaning public servants have to work hard to shield the budgets for epidemiologists and public health departments from cuts in tough budget cycles. These public health activities do not have the same kind of influential constituencies to advocate for them as national defense or highways. Christians and others of goodwill need to be attentive to preserving a robust public health infrastructure and building on it to meet challenges that may have begun with clean water but now extend to healthy diets and more.

As I sit and listen to public servants testify about campaigns to promote safe sleep and a host of other public health activities, I often recall Isaiah 65 and its vision of the good society that Christians call the kingdom of God where children do not die as infants and people live long lives. The public justice of the common good we find in this kingdom can be given form in a way that seeks a taste of the kingdom even while striving in hope for it in full. I know it when I see a new mother putting her baby to sleep properly in a safe crib and I can beam even if that baby is not my granddaughter.

- Jess Hale is an attorney in public service in Tennessee.  His views are his own and not those of any public agency in Tennessee.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”