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Health is an economic issue

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Summer is finally here! After an extended winter, it felt like it might never arrive. Warmer weather means longer days, more outdoor activities and a variety of delicious fruits and vegetables at bargain prices.

Indeed, despite the added calories from barbecues, beer and ice cream, many of us find it easier to be health-conscious in the summer. Some scientists are even finding that the month you’re born in can contribute to your health outcomes. 

While scientists have been able to tie health outcomes to seasons, it’s much harder to talk about why health outcomes change so radically based on socioeconomic and racial factors — not to mention learn what we can do to foster health equity. Since I work at Colorado Springs Food Rescue, I am committed to working with communities to create solutions. I spent the last week of June in a series of trainings focused on the ways health intersects with race and economic development. 

Here’s one takeaway: If we want to improve the physical health of a group of neighbors, one of the best things we can do is enhance the economic health of their neighborhood by creating jobs and boosting workforce development.

During my recent training marathon, I had the awesome opportunity to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival, a 10-day series of conversations and panels with health leaders of every sector from across the globe. One of those conversations was between U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and Patrick Harker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The focus of their dialogue: How to turn research into action through economic policy that supports workforce development, job creation and infrastructure. 

Harker notes that workforce training is key, because if companies can’t find workers, it limits their business and growth. And finding workers is increasingly a problem: America has 1 million more job openings than unemployed workers. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the unemployment rate in Colorado Springs fell to 3.2 percent in May from 3.5 percent in March. 

“To me, this is a unique time for this country,” Harker says of the push to train more workers, “to work with employers, work with others, work with government agencies, work with us, work across the board to help solve this problem.” 

To this thought, Adams adds that the country is starting to “take a hard look at the way we treat and consider folks with criminal background records, folks with substance abuse disorder, folks we have previously given the scarlet letter.” 

He says that’s happened for a practical reason: “It’s not happening from an empathetic point of view; it’s happening from a financial point of view.”

Adams shared a story about a company in Richmond, Virginia, that had operated for 80 years. The company was looking to hire 20 employees through traditional methods, but the applicants — close to 300 — kept failing drug tests.

Then the company decided to ask applicants up front whether they used drugs. If the applicant said yes, or later failed a drug test, the company would partner with community resources to offer treatment. “If that applicant successfully completes treatment, they save a job ... for them,” Adams says. 

Adams adds that the employees who complete this program tend to be more loyal, successful and miss fewer days of work than those who passed the initial drug test. 

Talk about progressive.

Health includes way more than just health care. Harker says we need to ask institutions like banks not only to play a part in providing affordable housing but also to reinvest in communities where they do business. Harker notes that a lot of cities welcome gentrification and the economic development it brings. “But what happens to the gentrified?” he asks. “They don’t just fall off the face of the earth. They have to go somewhere.”

And typically, he notes, that somewhere is a place that doesn’t have tools to promote a healthy lifestyle or a better job. That’s why he says it’s important that cities look for ways to foster “inclusive growth.”

To those who have ears, let them hear.

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