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A recent attention-grabbing headline on USA Today’s website listed the “least healthy” cities in the country. What grabbed our attention specifically was the inclusion of Chattanooga on this list. The city that prides itself on nationally celebrated outdoor activities, an ever-growing cycling community, great hospitals, and even an annual festival devoted to outdoors sports and activities—unhealthy?
The Gallup-Healthways group surveyed hundreds of thousands of Americans in 189 metropolitan areas during the past two years, asking people about their physical and emotional health, as well as measuring job satisfaction and access to basic needs.
Sadly, the “Boulder of the East” did not fare very well. According to survey results, we have the 40th highest obesity rate in the country, and even more disturbing, the 14th highest blood pressure rate. Worst of all, researchers noted that more than 20 percent of Chattanoogans claimed they didn’t have enough energy to accomplish what they needed to do every day, which places us almost at the bottom of the national list. Only two other metropolitan areas were worse off.
So what’s going on? It certainly isn’t a lack of options for exercise, or availability of healthcare (we have a surprisingly large number of hospitals and medical facilities for our population size).
It turns out, availability isn’t the problem. Affordability is the problem.
Median household income in the region, according to the report, was just $43,475 in 2012, which is nearly eight grand lower than the national average. Those lower incomes are believed to have strongly impacted the ability of Chattanoogans to afford basic needs such as healthcare, exercise and making healthy food purchasing decisions.
And while the percentage of Chattanoogans covered by health insurance is in line with the national average, nearly a third of respondents told researchers they just didn’t have enough money to pay for heathcare or medicine. A figure that is among the lowest rates in the country.
What do we do?
National debate has focused recently on “living wages”. Calls are being made to raise the minimum wage. Many people believe that such a move will help both the lowest of the low income and also help spark the economy, using the logic that people who have more money will spend more money.
A recent nonpartisan report from Dube showed that raising the minimum wage just 10 percent (to nearly $8 an hour) would reduce the number of people living in poverty 2.4 percent. Raising it to an even $10 an hour would have an even greater effect.
And the reduction of poverty is the key to health (and happiness). However, the flip side of that argument comes down to whether raising the minimum wage merely helps some at the expense of others.
University of California Irvine economist David Neumark, among many others, argues there is indeed an adverse effect. His research shows that the net effect is zero, as workers who benefit are balanced out by those who losing their jobs outright as employers balance increased payroll costs.
The bottom line is that there is no easy solution. And given our current political climate, solutions of any kind seem hard to find.