Power and Opportunity in the States
State policymakers have more flexibility than ever to advance health-promoting policies and programs, and to showcase effective strategies from which other states—and the nation as a whole—might learn. RWJF helps inform their efforts through research and analysis, technical assistance and training, and advocacy.
Why States Matter
States have long been laboratories for innovations that influence the health and well-being of their residents. This role has only expanded with the greater flexibility being given to the states, especially as gridlock in Washington, D.C. inspires more local action. The bevvy of new governors and state legislators who took office early this year also widens the door to creativity.
Medicaid is perhaps the most familiar example of state leadership on health. With costs and decisions shared by state and federal governments, the program allows state policymakers to tailor strategies that meet the unique needs of their residents. Among other examples, efforts are underway in California to expand Medicaid access to undocumented adults, and in Montana to connect unemployed Medicaid beneficiaries to employment training and supports.
In Washington state and elsewhere, Medicaid dollars can now cover supportive housing services, while Michigan is among the states requiring Medicaid managed care organizations to submit detailed plans explaining how they address social determinants of health for their enrollees. All of this experimentation is happening as states struggle to control the growth of their health care spending—a balancing act of immense proportions.
States are taking action on early childhood health as well. For example, while subsidized child care for low-income families is funded primarily by the federal government through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which got a record-breaking $5.8 billion boost from Congress in 2018), states have a big say in who qualifies for subsidies and whether to offer additional supports. This can lead to substantial variation across the country. Wyoming and Minnesota, for example, maintain child care copayments of $100/month or less from a family of three earning $30,000/year, while 14 states offer no subsidy at all for families at that income level, meaning they must pay fully out of pocket for child care. One in four states provide additional assistance, supplementing childcare subsidies with refundable tax credits to help families cover the costs of child and dependent care.
Not all state policies have a positive influence on health. Decisions about who qualifies for public benefits, ways to generate new state revenue, and how to implement and enforce laws related to housing, education, and civil rights can put well-being at risk, particularly for marginalized populations, if they are not carefully considered. States must be vigilant about their choices and pay attention to intended and unintended consequences.
To meet that responsibility, policymakers need access to the best available evidence, lessons from other states, and data and stories that can make the case for new investments and health-promoting policies. When policymaking is fully informed, it can help close persistent gaps in well-being and lead to breakthroughs that spread to other states and even to the nation as a whole.
How RWJF Supports the States
At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we keep a close eye on what is happening in state capitols because of their crucial role in building a Culture of Health. Look no further than state budgets: health care and education typically account for the largest outlays and both, of course, are core building blocks of individual and community well-being.
To have a voice in all this, our state-level work falls into three categories:
Research and Analysis: We fund assessments of the potential impacts of policy proposals, offer guidance to help states monitor and evaluate new programs, and study the results of policies once adopted. Without such analysis, experimentation can’t lead to new knowledge.
An example is From Safety Net to Solid Ground, an Urban Institute initiative that looks at how states are responding to federal safety net reforms in the context of nutrition assistance, housing supports, and Medicaid. Part of that work tracks the effects of adding or tightening work requirements in public benefit programs. We are also exploring how state fiscal decisions affect the public’s health, essentially showing that A Good State Budget is the Best Medicine.
Technical Assistance and Training: We provide non-partisan technical support to policymakers facing tricky policy design and implementation challenges. These stages in the policy cycle are crucial but underappreciated opportunities for promoting health equity.
One of our longest running and most successful technical assistance programs is State Health & Value Strategies, which helps states transform their health and health care systems. We also support longitudinal training and peer learning opportunities for state leaders, including health agency heads, Medicaid directors, and officials involved with children’s issues.
Advocacy: We invest in coalition building, storytelling, and policymaker education (without supporting lobbying). These activities raise public and decision-maker awareness of pressing issues, explain the implications of various policy approaches, and mobilize state residents, researchers, and private sector groups to support appropriate solutions.
One of our largest state-focused advocacy efforts—Voices for Healthy Kids—has worked to build the capacity of advocacy organizations addressing childhood obesity and has ultimately contributed to the adoption of more than 120 childhood obesity prevention policies in 46 states. We also work to advance health-promoting policies related to early education, family social and economic supports, and health care coverage.
The November 2018 elections brought 20 new governors and thousands of new and exceptionally diverse state legislators into office, making this a timely moment for outreach. While some officials have strong governing and legislative records, many are new to the policy arena. And most state legislatures operate part time, with little staff to do any legwork. All of that makes state policymakers hungry for evidence and practical lessons to inform their decisions.
At RWJF, we have just publicly released a series of information-packed issue briefs—seven on Medicaid and six on early childhood development, all written with a state policy and decision-maker audience in mind. They address the basics of program structure, financing, and operations; summarize the available research on health impacts; forecast the most pressing challenges state leaders will face; and point toward best practices from around the country. These briefs provide another set of tools to support states in implementing policies that will improve health and well-being within their own borders, and across the country, in the most equitable manner possible.
About the Authors
Giridhar Mallya, MD, MSHP, is a public health physician and health policy expert. Working to advance the role of policy in building a Culture of Health, particularly at the state and local level, he views the Foundation as “a national leader in marshaling the evidence used to shape policies that foster healthier people, communities, and institutions.” Read his full bio.
Tara Oakman, PhD, is a senior program officer working to improve the value of our investments in health and health care and also to help ensure that all young children—supported by their families and communities—have the building blocks for lifelong health and well-being. Read her full bio.