Economic prosperity is an established upstream health determinant, but planning for and encouraging economic opportunity is well outside governmental public health’s core services. It is usually the responsibility of economic and community development organizations. These organizations are multi-sectoral and bring together partners with a variety of motivations and interests – a partnership process that is certainly familiar to local public health agencies. Economic and community development usually rely on structured strategic assessment and planning for long-term outcomes. With health and economic opportunity being so intertwined, and with the growing similarity between their partnering and planning processes, some alignment of strategic priorities between governmental public health and economic development could benefit both sectors.
Economic and community development overlap but typically play different roles. Economic development attempts to increase economic activity by attracting new business and cultivating existing business in its region, with job growth being the primary goal. Community development often has a narrower focus on creating affordable housing and encouraging economic opportunities in low-income communities, though it can also refer to the municipal or county planning agency. These organizations can be a governmental, mixed, or self-organized private sector interests. This is by no means an exhaustive description of these two activities, and they will look very different in each locality. For an agency seeking to identify these activities in their district, any entity working to promote economic opportunity should fit the bill.
There are many resources for broadly understanding the ins and outs of economic and development, but the best help you connect the concepts to your local circumstances. This webinar, from Pueblo County’s Department of Economic Development, provides excellent grounding in how regional economic development tactics are adapting to new circumstances and adopting a more systems-thinking approach. One of the more comprehensive resources is found at WealthWorks, which also provides a method for identifying equitable market opportunities. Their framework is also a good place to start if you want to map your own community’s economic assets, including types of capital.
If your agency doesn’t already have a relationship with economic or community development, starting one may require a partnering topic that non-public health folks clearly perceive as a public health issue. Below are some areas that are justifiably in the LPHA bailiwick:
- Environmental health: Many LPH environmental health services are imbedded in their region’s land use decision making entities along with economic development partners, and others are involved through certifying onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) or strategizing for better waste diversion. Environmental health staff also regularly interact with business owners through retail food inspection. To make themselves more of a partner (as opposed to being seen just as a regulator), they have begun systematically weighing the employment or economic consequences of their inspection decisions and promoting the business case for food safety. These activities could be “feet in the door” for expanded LPH involvement in economic development.
- Food access: Several Colorado LPHAs are actively promoting the expansion of healthy food options in certain communities or engaging in comprehensive food system assessments. Since they involve local systems of production, distribution, and consumption, these activities should benefit (or may require) the participation of chambers of commerce or regional economic development corporations. Learn more about promoting food access with economic development partners from this report by ChangeLab Solutions.
- Advocating for adequate care services: The adequacy and availability of non-medical care, from childcare to assisted living, is an urgent challenge for most communities. Care professionals are underpaid and often need better support and training, and many other forms of care are entirely uncompensated and unsupported. Along with its health care and community partners, LPH can advocate for transforming and growing the local “care economy” so that it both adequately matches demand and becomes more equitable for care professionals. Expanding a community’s care capacity is an economic development opportunity to both grow a source of employment and provide an increasingly demanded service. Care cooperatives that are worker owned offer a promising route. Learn more through the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives, which contains excellent informational resources on child care cooperatives and home care cooperatives.
Not all economic development is supportive of community health, and much of it has been exploitative of certain populations and damaging to the environment. LPH and its close partners can advocate for healthier alternatives that aim to build local wealth in addition to attracting new jobs. Supporting the development of cooperative businesses that are worker-owned and democratically controlled aligns well with these goals and with advancing health equity. Co-ops are less likely to uproot, tend to benefit lower-income communities, encourage social connectedness, and can increase self-reliance and entrepreneurialism – all of which can have mental and physical health benefits.