Health and Sustainable Economic Development

A few years ago, Hans Rosling's talk on world development available through the TED Talks web-site generated signficant interest and conversation around economic development.

One of Roslings key findings is that Health and Education are absolutely essential to development–the findings are robust and persistent over time and across cultures. Sustainable development in Appalachia is no different. Our region suffers from poor health and low educational attainment relative to the rest of the country. The two go hand-in-hand, but today I'll focus on health.

A transition to economic vitality will require that we aggressively pursue improvements in health and health care. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that living in poverty is actually more hazardous to your health than smoking or obesity. The study makes a clear connection between poverty, education and health as did Professor Emeritus and founder of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health at the University of Michigan, George Kaplan, in his recent study The Poor Pay More–Poverty's High Cost to Health.

Kaplan's study finds that:

[G]ood health is not merely a function of doctor visits and adequate health care coverage. Health is also powerfully affected by a range of other factors such as neighborhood safety, work hazards, housing quality, the availability of social and economic supports during times of need, and access to nutritious food, physical activity, quality education, and jobs that pay livable wages. To be sure, individual choices play a role in shaping health outcomes. However, a person’s health and well-being are also deeply affected by these social determinants of health.

The research is clear–education, health and poverty are inextricably tied to each other and to a host of other factors that we highlight on the Appalachian Transition web-site. Economic development requires that we tend to these connections and address education and health problems in order to build a strong economy.

Michael Hendryx and colleagues Melissa Ahern and Timohty Nurkeiwicz highlight the connection between Central Appalachia's coal extraction industry and the region's public health challenges. Across several studies, Hendryx finds that coal mining counties suffer significant health impacts from hosting the coal industry and that these impacts cost coal states and counties a tremendous amount in healthcare spending and lost productivity.

Read coverage of the release of Hendryx's most recent study on the health costs of coal here.

Michael Hendryx contributed to The Central Appalachia Prosperity Project/Appalachian Transition Essays project with an essay that brings the issues of economy, education and health together and proposes the use of coal severance tax dollars for economic and educational redevelopment programs that he argues will also yield positive impacts on health. The essay should help us begin a conversation about the interconnectedness of our transition tasks–the various challenges that face Central Appalachia are interrelated and need to be addressed that way. This also means that as we make change in one area, we will likely see positive change in other areas.

Community groups are working on transition on the health and healthcare front and they need efforts in education and economic development to buttress their efforts.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently awarded the Whitley County Helath Department a $400,000 grant to help families and pregnant women access health services. The grant will help support the Voices of Appalachia Healthy Start Program which works to reduce preterm births through home visits and community education for pregnant women and families with children under age three. High smoking rates in Whitley County are the greatest contributor to low-birth weight problems. Congratulations to Voices' Healthy Start Program!

Economic diversification and transition to a sustainable and vibrant future for the region will require investments in the health and education of the region's population. We need to direct attention and resources to building healthy sustainable communities.

Find useful information and links to work on health care in Central Appalachia here.