Helping All New Jerseyans Live Their Healthiest Lives

Sep 17, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by

We're breaking down barriers to health equity in our home state of New Jersey by encouraging collaboration across sectors and communities.

Girls running after school with hands up.

New Jersey is ranked as one of the nation’s healthiest states—on average. But if you were to look more closely, you’d see the numbers mask significant differences in health across the state. For instance life expectancy in one Newark census tract is 75.6 years while just a few miles outside the city, it’s 87.7 years.

Race is a big factor contributing to this and other health disparities. For example, babies born into Black families in New Jersey are twice as likely to die before their first birthday in contrast to those born into white families.

Other factors contributing to health disparities include income, gender, and education. Some are less apparent, like the distance from people’s homes to parks and grocery stores or the availability of public transit. The point is that many things beyond what might immediately be thought of as health related do, in fact, play a major role in determining health. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a health and economic crisis that worsens health inequity and adds urgency to the effort to end disparities.

A Policy Roadmap for New Jersey

To close these gaps in life expectancy and address destructive health disparities, the Foundation is in the midst of an unprecedented effort within our home state. After extensive research and months of conversations with nearly 300 community residents, nonprofit and business leaders, and others from across the state, RWJF in April 2019 released a comprehensive set of policy recommendations in partnership with the Center for State Health Policy and the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, both at Rutgers University. The report, Building a Culture of Health: A Policy Roadmap to Help All New Jerseyans Live Their Healthiest Lives, identified 13 priorities for building a Culture of Health in New Jersey in three key areas:

  • Healthy children and families
  • Healthy communities
  • High-quality, equitable health and social service systems

The report underscored how health inequities often flow from generations of unjust, unfair policies and practices that create barriers to good health. To achieve health equity, these practices must be dismantled. Where policies are the problem, equity-promoting public policy reforms need to be the answer.

This report connected all the dots. The result is a roadmap across many sectors, including education, housing, nutrition, income, and health care, with a particular focus on health equity—the principle that everyone should have a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible, regardless of race, place, gender, income or any other factor. What sets this policy roadmap report apart from previous work to build a Culture of Health in New Jersey is its sweep.

Recommendations include providing high-quality early education for all 3- and 4-year-olds; helping everyone fully benefit from the state’s expanded paid family leave benefit; creating and preserving affordable homes; and integrating mental health, addiction, and physical health services for Medicaid enrollees. Each recommendation addresses pressing needs, advances health equity and is supported by evidence.

To bring the report’s policy recommendations to life, RWJF recently awarded nearly $2.9 million in grants to nine nonprofits for work in New Jersey. The response to RWJF’s call for proposals reflected applicants’ deep energy, commitment and optimism for finding new ways to tackle significant problems that cause health disparities. While they acknowledge the work won’t be easy, they know it must be done.

Building a Culture of Health will require unprecedented collaboration across all sectors and all communities. It must assure that those who have been pushed to the margins have what they need to make healthy choices. It will require directing resources to communities that have suffered from generations of under-investment. It will require evidence-based, equity-producing policies and unique partnerships.

The grantees and the areas in which they will work are:

  • Camden Coalition of Health Care Providers – patient-centered coordination of health, behavioral health, and social services
  • Family Health Initiatives – maternal and infant health
  • Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey – housing
  • Make the Road NJ (a program of Make the Road NY) – minimum wage, Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Monarch Housing Associates – housing
  • New Jersey Future – lead prevention
  • New Jersey Citizen Action – paid leave, and access to health care coverage options
  • New Jersey Together – housing

Making Gains Toward Health Equity

The report recognizes that only state-level policy cuts across all 565 New Jersey municipalities and has the potential to undo past wrongs. At the same time, though, action at the local level is needed to influence state leaders. RWJF will continue to be involved in health issues at all levels in New Jersey.

The grantee work soon to begin in New Jersey will address some of the state’s most intractable health gaps with the goal of making significant gains in health, particularly for people with the fewest opportunities to achieve optimal health and well-being.

All New Jerseyans will benefit from state progress toward improved health and well-being, but the most significant progress will come when health gaps are eliminated, and health equity is achieved. We urge policymakers and other leaders across the state to work with our grantees as they take up and advance the recommendations in this report. Together, let’s build a Culture of Health across New Jersey that serves as a model for the nation.

Learn more about efforts to support our home state of New Jersey.

About the Author

Sallie George

Sallie Anne George, MPH, is a program officer at RWJF where she works in several key areas to support the Foundation’s health and leadership efforts in communities nationwide.