The Rutgers Center for State Health Policy last month released the results of a statewide poll of residents, asking their views on their neighborhoods and a variety of health-related matters.

Center Director Joel Cantor said in a guest commentary for NJ Spotlight recently that the consuming interest in national health insurance reform shouldn’t distract people from local opportunities to improve health and well-being.

“In the U.S., health-related behaviors and social circumstances account for a much larger share of premature deaths than do health care system factors,” he said.

Recognizing the importance of local communities (disappointingly uncommon in this era of national divisiveness) makes the center’s New Jersey Health & Well-Being poll a promising approach to identifying needs and directing resources to meet them.

The poll asked a sampling of residents to rate their neighborhoods — excellent, good, fair or poor — and respondents in the southernmost counties (from Atlantic to Salem) gave significantly lower ratings than the rest of the state.

Cantor told The Press that the poll “challenges people’s preconceived ideas,” but here in South Jersey it rather confirms them. The region has been depressed economically since the Atlantic City casino gaming industry shrank by half, and the neighborhood and other ratings seem largely driven by economic factors.

So while 80 percent of N.J. adults rated their neighborhoods excellent or good, just 67 percent did so in South Jersey. Statewide, 20 percent offered a rating of fair or poor, while in this region 33 percent did so.

A similar contrast was seen on neighborhood particulars — as a place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, walk or exercise, or enjoy recreational facilities.

To a significant extent these are things money can buy, and there is simply less money in the southernmost counties.

For example, the average inflation-adjusted wage in Atlantic County in 2016 was $33,000, according to the National Association of Counties. In Cumberland, it was $35,200.

Compare that to Middlesex County at $47,600 and Morris County at $54,500. And those counties, like most to the north, also have stronger economic growth rates than their southernmost peers.

The economic effect is clear looking at the poll’s ratings from low-income residents statewide. They were substantially lower than those of all southernmost residents overall and across all factors except library services and in-home water quality.

South Jersey does lead the state significantly in one key area. Fewer of its residents are very concerned about air quality. Tourism and fewer people and autos make for easier breathing. The region is also not far from the ratings elsewhere on satisfaction with housing and racial or ethnic tension.

The center plans to conduct two more polls covering different topics, so the current informative sampling should broaden quite a bit in the next couple of years.

The great benefit eventually is that the poll should help direct public policy and charitable efforts in the most effective directions for Garden State residents.

The effort is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which invests in 20 coalitions to improve community health and promote health equity.

The project was designed with input from eight grant makers in the state who expect its results to help guide their own investments. Among these are the Nicholson Foundation for New Jersey, which funds community-based health care coalitions and is starting an asthma intervention pilot program; the Horizon Foundation of New Jersey, which invests in improving community spaces and advancing health literacy; and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, which supports projects that protect water and natural systems.

These charitable organizations realize they alone don’t have the resources to get the job done on improving health-related behaviors, but as Cantor said, they can bring communities together, provide seed funding of innovations and launch pilot programs with high potential.

The New Jersey Health & Well-Being survey should help direct more of those efforts to South Jersey.

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