A healthy Delta region can prosper economically in the years ahead. By the same token, an unhealthy Delta will face insurmountable obstacles in an era when prosperity is dependent on workforce quality and availability. The community leaders across our region who are serious about connecting public health and economic development must engage those in the private sector. Proper nutrition and exercise in our daily lives have never been more important. It’s an issue that can’t just be left to government. Local task forces dedicated to a healthy workforce should be established by chambers of commerce and other business organizations. Members of such task forces then can identify private-sector stakeholders such as retailers who might provide free in-store health services along with health insurance companies that want to control their costs by focusing on prevention.
Initiatives designed to improve public health make fiscal sense at the state level since it’s likely to be cheaper to promote incentives for low-income residents to adopt healthier behaviors than it is to pay their Medicaid bills later. At the local level, there’s also a case to be made for targeted activities since healthy employees spend more days at work and cost their employers less money in insurance premiums and lost productivity.
Of course, improving workforce health at the local level must consist of more than just public awareness campaigns. The truly progressive communities of this century will rethink local planning and zoning ordinances to ensure they encourage healthy practices, provide more diverse transportation options and establish design guidelines that promote walking and alternative forms of transportation.
Don’t ignore the problems we face. When employees and members of their families suffer from poor health, the results are absenteeism, turnover and reduced on-the-job performance. Until we tackle these issues, the Delta will never achieve its economic potential.
Pete Johnson of Clarksdale is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2001.