Community Health and the Competition for Jobs

Community health is about more than quality of life. Increasingly, companies are basing their location decisions on the availability of a healthy workforce.
by , | December 10, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Just about any governor, mayor or county executive will tell you that growing the number of well-paying jobs is his or her highest priority. These public officials are searching through the policy toolkit, looking at everything from the aggressive use of tax incentives to attracting talent by focusing on quality of life and public amenities. Here is an angle they may not have considered: improving the health of their constituents.

More and more companies, in their efforts to contain employee health-care costs, are making a community's obesity rate the most important factor in their business-location decisions, Dr. James Johnson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told attendees at a Center for Digital Government gathering last month. Dr. James Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provided some specifics about how companies base location decisions on a community's health factors. IBM "opened a plant in Dubuque, Iowa, because the health-care costs there were the lowest in the nation," Marks said in an interview on the foundation's website. "A plant opened recently in Allentown, Pa., where the location was chosen because of the health of the community."

In some respects, a community's health index is like an individual's credit score. It tells those considering doing business with you how big a risk you are. And just as an individual ought to know his or her credit score and how it stacks up and is being used, so also should any public official concerned about economic development know his or her community's health score.

Finding out how a community's health stacks up has never been easier. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, published earlier this year and updated regularly, presents data for every county in America on such health outcomes as premature death and low birth weight; health factors such as obesity, smoking and excessive drinking; and on clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment. This data is available for anyone to see, including not only companies making location decisions but also the staffs of the economic development agencies of the jurisdictions competing for those companies and the jobs they bring.

Fortunately, in addition to the health rankings, the website also provides What Works for Health, an online, searchable menu of policies and programs--each with a rating based on strength of evidence for factors that can help make communities healthier.

The realization that there are also economic-development consequences for policies that make communities healthier ought to make allies of two powerful constituencies--the health and wellness advocates and the economic-development lobby--and give public officials a stronger hand in getting those policies in place.

In the end, cities and states that improve their health rankings will win more than just a moral victory for a better quality of life for their citizens; they'll get a leg up in the global competition for jobs.