More Jobs For Better Health: NewPublicHealth Q&A With Mark Pinsky

Jan 17, 2012, 7:33 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Mark Pinsky Photo Mark Pinsky, Opportunity Finance Network

Today on The Health Care Blog, Mark Pinsky, President and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network, a national network of community development finance institutions that provide funds for low-income communities, and Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, penned a guest blog about burgeoning opportunities for economic growth and job creation to support healthier communities.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Mark Pinsky about the synergy between economic policy and health policy, and new cross-sector partnerships that could make a difference.

>>Also watch a video interview with Mark Pinsky here:

NewPublicHealth: How do jobs and economic opportunities affect health?

Mark Pinsky: Jobs give people an anchor and stability in their life. Financial stability gives them financial options, and they’re able to make decisions about their own life, including about their own health. Jobs make it possible for people to live where they want to live, giving them social mobility, which will affect whether they have access to healthy food and access to the kind of health care they need and want. Jobs also give people the ability to relax, for lack of a better term. When you have a job, you have the ability to choose to go for a hike, or go for a bike ride or spend more time with your family or lead a more active lifestyle. I don’t know that it’s any one thing, but having a good job, having a steady income, and having economic security really means having health security. It’s about being able to make the choices you need to make to live your life the way you want to, so you can be as healthy as possible for you and your family.

NPH: Tell us about some of the interesting partnerships that have been cropping up to address health from all angles.

Mark Pinsky: When I think about it particularly from a community development side, I think there’s always been this drive to create healthier communities. We’ve only recently been able to get below the surface on that. We had focused on it in terms of creating an economic infrastructure, knowing that it was sort of an incomplete approach. One of the things that has happened has been to focus people’s attention on how do we link the incredible things that are possible in health with the incredible things that are possible in community development and economic development.

NPH: Community development financial institutions are increasingly considering the health impacts of their investments. What changes have you seen in the past year in terms of how investment decisions are made?

Mark Pinsky: There have been two big movements or trends that have been part of that. One is the focus on community health care financing, and the other is the healthy foods initiatives. In New York, the Primary Care Development Corporation has long been a pioneer. They were trying to figure out how to take the innovations from CDFIs [community development finance institutions] in that area focused on community health and help others around the country to adopt that, and it’s been a challenge. Like everything in community development, what works in one place doesn’t always work in another place. But it’s persistence that makes us successful at what we do. We knew there was something important there. That has really caught on. It’s led to a whole new set of conversations between state and national community health care associations and other health care providers. Even CDFIs that aren’t financing community health centers are aware of it and thinking of it, and it becomes a factor in how they make decisions about other things. Even if they’re doing a relatively simple multi-family housing transaction, they’re more likely to think about how this benefits from or adds to community health care solutions.

The second area is the whole movement around healthy foods, and making sure people in all communities have access to quality food. It was interesting because, frankly, I first heard that talked about at a bank using new market tax credits. You start getting a critical mass in the momentum that has you thinking about health as a factor in your economic development decisions, your community development decisions.

NPH: What is the model the Create Jobs for USA program is using to help get more Americans access to jobs and better economic opportunities?

Mark Pinsky: It’s a really interesting initiative, because it came out of a relationship with Starbucks. Starbucks, obviously, is a coffee provider but is also a food provider that thinks a lot about what health means. Howard Shultz at Starbucks had this idea that as a corporation that cared about communities, they wanted to do something to help respond to the crisis in communities, which was the absence of jobs. More than even a jobs crisis, he called it a jobs emergency. They realized they had the ability, given their corporate brand and their marketing capacity and their store presence in 7,000 communities, to play a role—but they could only play part of the role. They needed a partner, and the partner they came to was Opportunity Finance Network, because we had the other half of the equation. They could raise awareness and raise funds in a significant way, and we could take those funds and quickly, through our network of CDFIs, turn those donations into financing that would create and retain jobs in urban, rural and native communities around this country. It was a great partnership.

What it’s doing is raising money in small dollar amounts through a crowd-funding mechanism that allows anyone who has $5 to share to help someone who doesn’t have $5 to spare, and feel like and be part of the solution. That money comes in, and it’s quickly funneled to Opportunity Finance Network. We turn it around as quickly as we can and put it out to CDFIs in the form of capital grants, which are like equity that allow the CDFIs to borrow against that and lend against that. Every dollar that gets donated results in $7 in financing for job creation and retention. That money is out there already. Through the program in the first couple of months, we’ve put money out there that’s supporting or has the potential to support up to $50 million in financing—all done $5 at a time, through donations.

One of the effects that I think is most important is that it taps into that American spirit, the idea that communities help each other. You know, “I may not have a lot, I only have $5, but I can help you.” There are individuals and institutions who want to be a part of the solution, and this gives them the means to do it. On the other end, there are people who need jobs very badly. It’s an important part of helping to make communities healthy again.

NPH: What's the incentive for businesses like Starbucks to get involved, and how can the public health field engage them?

Mark Pinsky: Howard may be on the cutting edge of a realization that if communities aren’t healthy, businesses aren't going to be healthy. We've heard from a number of companies that it's not just that there are no consumers buying whatever they’re selling, but it’s also that their supply chains are adversely affected. When economies are not healthy, then people are not healthy. You get sick employees and employee absenteeism. When the economy is bad, people leave town, schools get worse, and then it becomes harder to maintain the businesses that support your business. It is really an ecosystem. Like the crowd-funding solution, on a larger scale, businesses and government and CDFIs and banks need to each put in what they can. No one has the resources to solve this problem on their own. We know that government can’t do the things that we used to hope that it could do, especially as fiscal constraints continue to tighten up. We’re going to have more and more local communities that are affected. We need to find new kinds of innovative partnerships that involve, say, a foundation and a corporation and a non-profit, whether it’s a CDFI or someone else, and really be willing to get outside the box. And we need to be clear that what we’re focused on is the outcome of building healthier communities, and we’ll each bring our expertise to bear. And if we do all those things, we can pool our resources, pool our ideas, pool our best thinking and make a difference.

NPH: What are some of the challenges to the development of these kinds of partnerships and how can more communities overcome them?

Mark Pinsky: The big challenge is the silo problem. If you’re a public health professional, you live in a public health world. Community development professionals live in that world. That ability to look outside and connect and interact is really the first big challenge. When you bring people together around the table, the ongoing learning that takes place from things like that are a big step toward improving the community. If someone from a public health setting sees what can happen with CDFIs, maybe the next time they’re at a professional conference, the topic comes up and they have something to share. It takes time, but it will in its own small way go viral.

One of the challenges we all face is resources. The challenges we’re trying to address in public health and community development are enormous. But we can’t let that get in our way. We’ve got to demonstrate the value of it, and as we do I think the resources will come.

NPH: Any big thoughts for the future of the field?

Mark Pinsky: Moments of distress are also moments of opportunity. We need to focus on the win-win that is connecting health policy and economic policy—it’s a chance to change how people think about things. It can be a transformational moment. It’s the little things that magnify up and really do make a difference. We need to keep our eye on the long-term goal, which is creating healthier communities everywhere. It will happen; it just takes persistence and patience.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.