Report shows link between health and wealth, St. Louis County officials saySt. Louis County’s rank declined in the two broad areas included in the annual County Health Rankings released on Tuesday.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Poverty is a major reason why St. Louis County’s health lags behind much of the state in an annual report, Guy Peterson said on Tuesday.
“Social and economic factors weigh into this,” said Peterson, the county’s public health director. “It brings us down a lot compared to the state. … The healthiest counties are in the ring of metro suburbs, the places where the money is.”
The county’s rank declined in the two broad areas included in the annual County Health Rankings, which is compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The report measures most of the counties in the nation in terms of how healthy people are and how long they live.
In health outcomes, including factors such as premature deaths and low birth weight, St. Louis County dropped from 61st to 72nd among the 84 Minnesota counties included. In health factors, including everything from smoking and obesity to access to healthy foods and recreational facilities, the county dropped from 45th to 64th.
“We’re in the lowest quartile of many different areas,” Peterson said on Tuesday. “That’s sad news.”
Social scientists have long observed that “the more educated you are and the more income that you have and the better housing that you have, you live longer,” Peterson said.
St. Louis County is affected by a 22 percent child-poverty rate, Peterson said, which is up from 19 percent last year. The state child-poverty rate is 15 percent, and the national benchmark is 13 percent. The benchmark is not an average; it means only 10 percent of counties in the U.S. are doing better.
Peterson also pointed to the percentage of children in single households, which is 34 percent in St. Louis County, compared with 26 percent statewide and a national benchmark of 20 percent.
A look at suburban metro counties seems to support Peterson’s observation.
Carver County, in the southwest metro area, ranks second in the state in both health outcomes and health factors. Only 6 percent of its children are living in poverty, and only 15 percent are in single-parent households. Washington County, in the eastern metro, ranks seventh in health outcomes and third in health factors and has a child poverty rate of 7 percent, with 19 percent of children in single-parent households.
Patrick Remington, associate dean for public health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health who heads the report, said the correlation is real, but not absolute.
“Wealth is correlated with good health both among individuals and within communities,” Remington said during a telephone news conference. “You do see exceptions. The border counties of Texas have quite high rates of poverty … but have some of the longest-living populations.”
Other Northeastern Minnesota counties showed modest gains from last year. Carlton County edged up from 64th to 63rd in health outcomes and from 47th to 44th in health factors. Lake County moved up from 81st to 79th in health outcomes and from 39th to 35th in health factors. In Wisconsin, Douglas County improved from 57th to 53rd among the 72 counties that were rated in health outcomes, but dropped from 52nd to 58th in health factors.
The brightest spot in the region was in Cook County, which wasn’t ranked last year. It was in the top half of the state’s counties in both categories — 42nd in outcomes and 28th in factors.
Remington acknowledged that county lines don’t perfectly reflect health realities. For example, Douglas County has a ratio of 1,690 people for every primary-care physician — far worse than the national benchmark of 631 to 1 and the Wisconsin average of 744 to 1. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that many Douglas County residents can easily get to doctors in Duluth.
“However, I know Douglas County quite well,” Remington said. “I’m certain that primary care is not quite as good as it could be in some of the smaller (population) areas.”
This was the third year for the county health rankings. They were modified this year to add such things as the percentage of fast-food restaurants. The purpose, Remington said, is for a county’s leaders and residents to see where they can improve.
“It’s not really a race to the top,” he said. “It’s used to call attention to the fact that there are differences and that there are things to be done. You’ll find a lot of areas that could use improvement.”
That’s already happening in Northeastern Minnesota, said Julie Myhre, director of the Carlton-Cook-Lake-St. Louis Community Health Board. The four counties recently obtained a federal Community Transformation Grant through the Statewide Health Improvement Program, she said.
Peterson said goals of the program include establishing “safe walks” to schools and offering incentives for students to exercise and eat vegetables. Continuing efforts also are under way to establish community gardens in tax-forfeited lands in hopes of giving people access to healthy foods in their neighborhoods, he said.