2018 health rankings highlight disparity between North, South Jersey

If you live in the northern half of the state, not only are you more likely to live longer, but odds are pretty good your quality of life will be better, too. At least that’s what the ninth annual County Health Rankings report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds.

Groups of health experts crunched the data and found Morris County is the healthiest in the state, knocking runner-up Hunterdon out of its longtime, first place standing, with Somerset just trailing behind. Meanwhile, sparsely populated and impoverished South Jersey counties Cumberland, Salem and Camden ranked at the bottom.

“No one in America should have less opportunity to be healthy because of where they live, how much money they make or what they look like,” said Marjorie Paloma, senior program director of the RWJ Foundation.

Yet year after year, that seems to be the case. Experts say big gaps exist within the state and each county due to social determinants used to create the rankings in the report — things like tobacco use, access to and quality of care; education, employment, income, safe housing and transportation. But the biggest factor, they say, is race.

“Blacks have worse health outcomes than our lowest ranked county, while Asians have better health outcomes than our top ranked county. Meanwhile Hispanics, Native Americans and whites are more similar to those that are ranked in the middle,” said Toni Lewis, the community coach for County Health Rankings and Road Maps.

“That which greatly and most profoundly affects health are those things which happen outside of the purview of your doctor’s visit,” said Michellene Davis, executive vice president and corporate affairs officer for RWJBarnabas Health.

The report finds differences in opportunities disproportionately undercut the health and prospects of people by race.

“Unfair structural policies and discriminatory practices such as unfair bank lending practices, school funding, for so many years based on property taxes, contributes to these disparities,” said Lewis.

And while the state is chipping away at teen birthrates and child poverty, a deep dive into the data also showed some unfortunate truths.

“While children who live in Morris County, the poverty level is currently at 6 percent in this particular community, it’s as high as almost 40 percent,” said Catherine Connelly, manager of North Jersey Health Collaborative.

“So, realizing that you can tell someone to get health care and go to their doctor, but if they’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from, how they’re going to pay their rent, where they’re living, it’s a lot bigger than health care,” said Jackie Cornell, principal deputy commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Health.

That’s why many of the folks are encouraged by initiatives outlined in the governor’s budget plans, like expanding pre-K and boosting aid for schools, and statewide collaborations like those happening in Newark to hire people from the neighborhood.

You can think of the data as a jumping off point and a way for the state to track progress and begin to crack down on these disparities.

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