The current economic recovery effort presents an opportunity to build stronger, healthier communities. That’s a central goal for the Create Jobs for USA Fund that Opportunity Finance Network (OFN) and Starbucks launched late last year to support job creation and retention.
Economic growth and job creation provide more than income and the ability to afford health insurance and medical care. They also enable us to live in safer homes and neighborhoods, buy healthier food, have more leisure time for physical activity, and experience less health-harming stress. The research clearly shows that health starts in our homes and communities and not in the doctor’s office.
In that way, economic policy is, in fact, health policy.
Since 1985, OFN’s national network of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) has loaned more than $23 billion to benefit low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged communities. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), with an endowment of around $8.5 billion, is the nation’s largest philanthropy focused solely on improving health and health care for all Americans. Marrying the business acumen of CDFIs and others to health philanthropy’s ability to supply the research, analysis, and expertise to make sure community development activities improve residents’ health is a powerful union.
Working together, we can leverage our individual strengths and have a greater impact on improving the health of communities and the people who live in them.
Across the nation, similar cross-sector collaborations are forming around this sort of community health innovation among groups as diverse as the Federal Reserve System, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Bank of America, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Living Cities. While these alliances may seem unlikely, the vibrant U.S. network of real estate developers, banks, philanthropies, public entities, and nonprofit groups focused on community development have worked for many years on parallel but separate tracks to improve the lives of low-income people.
These sectors have been working side by side – in Los Angeles, for example, public health has focused on childhood obesity in the same neighborhoods where the community development sector has been working to reduce economic hardship. Until recently, we have not been working together.
But this is changing.
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a partnership between the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, is investing $500 million annually to subsidize grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods. This increases access to healthier foods, creates jobs and these stores are profitable. Win-win-win.
Additionally – and perhaps as a surprise to the health sector – a growing focus of CDFI financing is community-based health care, including both physical and mental health. Primary Care Development Corporation, based in New York City, has pioneered a model combining finance and technical assistance to improve access to care and quality of care in low-wealth communities. IFF, a nonprofit lender and consultant headquartered in Chicago and working across the Midwest, has helped nonprofit health care providers increase capacity by more than 160,000 patient visits.
The goal for both the health sector and for CDFIs is to make the healthy choice the easy choice. CDFIs have a long history of collaboration with local residents, which increases their input into decisions about which projects happen and boosts community support for local development projects.
One example is Market Creek Plaza, a $23.5 million real estate development project in what was once one of the most distressed and dangerous communities in San Diego. Developed by the Jacobs Foundation and Clearinghouse CDFI, Market Creek Plaza was designed, built – 70 percent of the construction was conducted by local minority-owned businesses – and is now owned by community residents. It has brought together affordable housing, healthy food, a community center and jobs for community residents that include living wages, health insurance and pension plans. This is just one instance of CDFIs working to improve neighborhood conditions, create jobs and increase opportunities to be healthy.
These collaborations also make fiscal sense since improving low-income communities yields both health and economic benefits. An unhealthy workforce adds to health care costs and also is less productive. The work so far is encouraging, but we need to do more. We need to recognize that income security and economic opportunities lead to a healthier, more productive workforce and reduced health care costs, which in turn, leads to a stronger economy.
The end goal? Create and sustain job growth across the country. Improve communities. Improve health. Give people the opportunities to make smart, healthy decisions so that they can act in the best interests of their communities, themselves, and future generations.