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Tennessee counties' health, wealth 'perfectly correlated,' report says

Williamson County is the state’s wealthiest and healthiest county.

Grundy County is the exact opposite: The county of 13,425 north of Chattanooga has both the highest number of people below the poverty line and the poorest health, a state study has revealed.

That Williamson is the best of both lists should come as no surprise given the “inextricable link” between income, education and health, said Randy Boyd, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development.

A new report from the ECD that analyzed education attainment, workforce participation, health and economic prosperity underscored the need for initiatives that tackle variables that impact health.

"It’s not like it was kind of correlated. It was perfectly correlated," said Boyd. "I hope (people) understand the inextricable link between education and economic prosperity. They need to understand (education) is also linked to health."

It’s a correlation that Boyd compared to the age-old question: Which comes first: the chicken or the egg?

To bring new jobs, the workforce has to be physically able and educated to perform the work.

By the time companies are talking to the ECD about coming to the state, executives have already seen education and health statistics.

Tennessee is persistently among the worst in the country for obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases that increase the likelihood of a worker taking sick days or underperforming on the job.

Williamson County, in 2015 had the lowest unemployment rate and the fewest number of poor or fair health days, or days when adults said they were not in good physical health. In contrast, Grundy County had the 11th highest unemployment rate as well as the fifth highest number of poor or fair health days.

 

Boyd recalled a recent trip to a car manufacturer where some potential new employees have bowed out of the hiring process because they can’t do required physical labor.

In response, the manufacturer put together a training regimen that has employees gradually increasing how many times they can walk the perimeter of the building – roughly a mile, said Boyd.

Tackling education is central to improving health. And one in three high school graduates don't meet the state's requirements, per a study from the state’s education agency.

Joseph Webb, CEO of Nashville General at Meharry, is working to get Davidson County’s health care, faith and education institutions aligned on an initiative that preaches education as a way to improve people’s health down the road.

Education is correlated with income and access to transportation, food and better housing — a few of the social determinants that impact health. The correlation is shown in studies in other countries around the world.

Webb's Congregational Health and Education Network would create a network that tries to influence education and health over the long-term.

The state's future could be bleak given fast-paced advances in technology that threaten to claim jobs from workers, and the time — and concerted effort it takes to improve a population's health.

Of the state’s civilian labor force, about 31 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet, the group with at least a bachelor’s degree has a 2.5 percent unemployment rate.

 

In contrast, the group who didn’t graduate from high school, or obtain an equivalency, has a 12 percent unemployment rate. Overall, they account for 8 percent of the labor force.

The unemployment rate in 2015 — 5.3 percent — was the lowest since 2005, according to the report, which used Census data.

But, ECD projects that there were 1.4 million jobs in 2015, or half of those in the state, that could be eliminated due to automation.

Boyd and Webb said education is a big part of the answer to both what the state is confronting with its current health problems and ensuring people have jobs in the future.

Higher education has become a signature cause for Gov. Bill Haslam, who wants to see 55 percent of the state's working adults get a college education by 2025. His Drive to 55 initiative includes several programs, including the Tennessee Promise scholarship, aimed at driving tens of thousands of Tennesseans into higher education.

"Education is a primary driver of income ... which has a direct impact on health. So why wouldn’t you focus on education," said Webb.

Reporter Adam Tamburin contributed. Reach Holly Fletcher at hfletcher@tennessean.com or 615-259-8287 and on Twitter @hollyfletcher.