“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” These words, spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than 75 years ago, ring true today. The question must be, why have we not heeded those words?
A recent report by U.S. News and World Report titled “The 10 Healthiest Communities in America” studied the impact of an individual’s geographic location as a major factor in their overall health and life expectancy. A large percentage of locales at the top of the list of healthy communities are in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, particularly Northern Virginia. Falls Church City was noted as the “healthiest city in America.”
What is it about certain areas in Northern Virginia that places them in the pantheon of healthy places to live? Let’s start with some basic and seemingly obvious variables. Northern Virginia is home to median family incomes in most local jurisdictions in excess of $100,000. Many parts of it are racially homogeneous (Falls Church is 72% non-Hispanic White). Historically, many of these areas have had restrictive municipal zoning laws and land-use policies in place for generations that have excluded all but the wealthiest among us. These jurisdictions also possess exceptionally high access to health care, excellent public and private education, availability of quality food stores, and places to exercise without fear of physical harm. Those are just a few in the obvious first line of defense.
Beyond these lie factors such as average level of education (the Washington area has rates of college completion more than twice the national average), excellent public schools, lower life stress factors, quality and availability of housing, safety of neighborhoods, historically low unemployment levels, family stability, low crime rates, and other variables that impact one’s health in the short and long term. The Northern Virginia area ranks very high in all of these areas.
To bolster that assertion, here are some astonishing statistics. According to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
1. The average life expectancy in the District of Columbia is 77 years; the average life expectancy in Fairfax County, Virginia is 84.
2. Nearby Montgomery County, Maryland has an average life expectancy of 84 years, while less prosperous neighboring Prince Georges County logs in at 78 years.
3. If one looks beyond our region, the difference is nearly 20 years in parts of West Virginia and other less affluent areas throughout the nation.
There seems to be a strong correlation here between geography, race, income, access to health care, the quality of neighborhood schools, crime, access to healthy food choices, and other factors that impact one’s quality of life and one’s life expectancy. These social and economic determinants of health are critical factors if we want to address life expectancy disparities, income inequality, education inequality, health-care inequality, and other manifestations of social and economic inequality in America. As we know, these are all issues that have divided the nation in recent years. Franklin Roosevelt would be appalled at the lack of progress we have made as a nation in these areas.
Some additional national and local statistics:
1. The 2017 federal poverty level for a family of four was defined as a family income of less than $24,600 per year.
2. The Fairfax County Community Action Advisory Board reports that a family of four living in the County needs an income of $74,082 just to meet basic expenses such as housing, food, and health care.
3. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fairfax County is $1,551.
4. Eight percent (99,000) of Fairfax County residents had no health insurance in 2016.
5. Nearly 28% of Fairfax County students meet the poverty criteria for federally supported free or reduced lunch in 2016-2017.
So, it seems that one’s location plays a major role in the life expectancy and economic security of the residents of areas here in Northern Virginia and throughout the nation. In other words, it is not your genetic code that may determine your life expectancy. It may be your zip code. There were no zip codes during Roosevelt’s terms in office, but he knew that it did not take zip codes to create an unequal America.
Many public policy options are on the table that will help to move those in impoverished environments into more prosperous, healthier environments – affordable housing, access to health-care, neighborhoods free of crime, excellent public schools, availability of safe outdoor recreational space, creation of a sense of neighborhood that nurtures cohesion, access to arts and cultural events, availability of and accessibility to community events and, of course, taking proactive measures to close the widening income and social class divide in America. Roosevelt knew this well and, as we now know, he did all he could to enact measures to address these issues through his “New Deal.” The challenge for today’s leaders is to muster the political will to reverse this trend. Few, if any, seem to be up to the challenge.
The message is clear. If we want to begin the long, difficult process of closing the gap between rich and poor in America, this must begin by enacting public policies that promote a healthy, safe living environment. Localities like Fairfax County and Falls Church City need to enact public policies that address this issue – zoning and land use, affordable housing, childcare, etc. Absent that, children raised in impoverished environments inevitably develop life-long habits that lead to physical, economic, and sociological decay – hence, a shorter life expectancy, and worse. In this environment, the income inequality that has gripped the nation during the past several decades will only worsen.
How does this relate to Northern Virginia as one of the healthiest places in America with the highest life expectancy? We can revel in our wealth and prosperity and be proud of it. The residents of Northern Virginia have been afforded tremendous opportunities unknown to millions of Americans. We must resist the temptation to gloat and be smug about it.
Falls Church City, as noted earlier, was named America’s healthiest community in the aforementioned U.S. News and World Report study. Bravo for Falls Church City. Falls Church City also has maintained a single-family home zoning policy that has systematically excluded low-income families for generations. It is only in recent years that the city has begun to address the issue of “affordable housing.” This has also kept it predominantly White with little racial and ethnic diversity. Today, the city is 72% non-Hispanic White with an African American population of 5% and a Hispanic population of 10%. It seems that America’s changing demographics have not yet affected the City of Falls Church.
This certainly has helped the City of Falls Church nurture what has been termed the best public high school in the nation (98% graduation rate) in recent surveys. It has also helped the City of Falls Church attract a large percentage of high-income earners, thereby enhancing their tax capacity and tax effort. This has resulted in excellent recreational facilities and many other amenities that promote good health and long life expectancy. In other words, it is not difficult to be healthy, prosperous, productive, and live a long life when the deck is stacked in your favor.
“The Little City” can boast of fine public schools, an abundant number of food stores, a world-class farmer’s market, abundant health care options including numerous primary care physicians, a population where fully a quarter of its households earn $200,000 or more annually (nearly 10 times the national poverty rate for a family of four), a median household income of $115,000, a poverty rate of 2.7%, where 80.2% of its adult residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree, safe parks and recreation facilities…the list goes on. In this context, the level of discretionary time and income devoted to healthy living is enormous.
My point here is not to say that healthy living, access to the best life can offer, and long life expectancy should be denigrated. For those among us who have attained what Abraham Maslow termed self-actualization, and who are fortunate enough to have “the best of the best”, we need to recognize that the overwhelming number of Americans cannot relate to the economic “bubble” known as Northern Virginia.
To the City of Falls Church and the rest of Northern Virginia, I have one clear message. Recognize that we all live in an economic, demographic bubble – a bubble that millions of people outside the Beltway cannot even imagine. If we are serious about addressing the issue of income, health, educational inequality and life expectancy disparities in America, we might want to consider starting right here in our own backyard by enacting public policies (zoning and land-use; child-care, and other public policy initiatives) that can be accomplished at the local level) that address these issues and that begin to close the widening chasm between rich and poor in America. In a nation where the 400 wealthiest among us control wealth greater than to poorest 80 million Americans, the consequences of not doing so are dire.
Another visionary from the past, Martin Luther King, stated, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” It seems that we have not heeded King’s vision either.
As always, I welcome your civil, educated, thoughts and comments.