The increase in the minimum wage is the biggest public health legislation passed in the last legislative session, according to Minnesota health commissioner, Dr. Ed Ehlinger. Moving from lowest twenty percent income level to the second-lowest twenty percent income increases life expectancy by three years. Public health is also closely tied to transportation, said Ehlinger in his keynote address to the October 25 St. Paul Healthy Transportation for All forum. His insights offer a lot of food for thought.
Public health focuses on much more than epidemics and vaccinations in the 21st century. Ehlinger pointed out that social and economic factors contribute more to health than clinical care, genetics, or even individual behavior. Looking at what creates health, the breakdown is:
- social and economic factors – 40%
- health behaviors 30%
- clinical care 10%
- physical environment 10%
- genetics and biology 10%
Health equity is the central challenge for Minnesota, said Ehlinger. Racial and economic disparities mean that not everyone is benefiting from Minnesota’s quality of life.
Like improving public health, reducing health disparities depends on policy change, not individual behavior. Transportation is part of that policy key. Transportation, health and equity connect in many ways.
Increased activity contributes to better health, and transportation policy are key to making activity safe and attractive. That includes safe places for walking and biking, not just for recreation, but also as part of daily routines for work, school, grocery shopping and so on.
Access to affordable, accessible transportation translates into improved access to stable employment and adequate incomes, and access to healthy food as well.
Traffic safety has seen big improvement over the past few decades, with traffic deaths falling from 568 in 1990 to 387 in 2013.
Transportation is also closely related to health and equity because it affects clean air and clean water: Ehlinger noted that kids who attend schools near highways have higher respiratory problems and communities near highways have disproportionate rate of lung cancer.
The challenge is to improve Minnesota’s quality of life, health and transportation for all Minnesotans. “We are healthy today because of investments made in the 1960s and 70s,” Ehlinger said. “What investments are we going to make for our grandkids and great-grandkids?”