The Effects of Neoliberal Practices on Public Health

Neoliberalism, ironically, is a system of economic practices championed mostly by political conservatives. The system places an emphasis on laissez-faire market practices and promotes a lack of government intervention in the economy, but it can have significant impacts on public health. One of the biggest examples of neoliberalism was the implementation of “Reaganomics,” which refers to President Reagan’s 1981 Program for Economic Recovery and the Economic Recovery Tax Act. Under these economic policies, government spending and regulation were both greatly reduced, and taxes were cut for corporations. The policies had massive effects, allowing for the rise of the high-tech revolution years later but widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

Since the first implementation of neoliberal policies, one of the biggest sectors impacted has been public health and healthcare. The United States’ healthcare industry was largely privatized under Reagan-era policies, and this is how it remains today. The impacts of this are still in effect. Privatization has given people the freedom to choose their own doctors, shorter wait times to suffer through, and better facilities. On the downside, privatized health care leaves 15% of Americans without healthcare. It also leads to higher costs for individuals and families and creates inequality in quality of care between the rich and poor.

Neoliberal policies also affect public health outside of the healthcare system. Speaking with Dr. Dan Lindheim, an assistant professor of practice at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and former City Administrator for the City of Oakland, I explored how neoliberalism could have large impacts on community health.

Lindheim stresses that privatization of industries is not necessarily a bad or evil practice. It increases competition and fosters innovation. However, the negative impacts may outweigh the positive. The main issue with privatization is that companies have no incentive to take responsibility for the damages they cause, and this has dangerous impacts on public health.

Examples of this neglect can be seen as close to home as Oakland. West Oakland’s high proximity to ports puts its residents in close contact with toxic pollutants from ships and diesel-fueled delivery trucks. These pollutants tend to be black carbon, which is the result of burning diesel, wood, and coal. In fact, West Oakland residents are exposed to concentrations of diesel pollution in the air three times higher on average than any other Bay Area community.

This close contact with the ports can adversely affect residents. The Alameda County Public Health Department found that West Oakland and downtown Oakland residents have rates of asthma significantly higher other counties. Residents from parts of Oakland further from the port and downtown are expected to live seven times longer than West Oakland residents. The companies that run these ships and trucks have no incentive to change their ways, as they operate in whichever way provides the highest profits possible. In the absence of government intervention, the companies are allowed to operate in whichever benefits themselves most while residents continue to fall sick. To add insult to injury, residents of West Oakland that suffer disproportionately from asthma tend to be low-income who cannot afford to pay for private and individualized healthcare.

Again, while privatization is not inherently evil, Dr. Lindheim says, “You must have substantial regulation in public health because it is not any private company’s interests to care about public health unless given a reason to.” He advises that we should be careful with the extent to which we implement neoliberal policies like privatization and government deregulation.

The takeaway from this information shouldn’t be that neoliberal policies are going to tear the country apart. There have been many positive impacts as a result of these policies, but we should be wary to the extent that they are implemented. Removing government intervention from every aspect of life could have real harms, and the only group to benefit from this would be corporations. Implementation of policies for whatever reason should never come at the cost of society and at the cost of a healthy public.