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How Civic Engagement, Infrastructure Impact Community Health

Areas with histories of structural racism also have lower civic engagement and poorer community health, outlining part of some health disparities.

Getting into civics class might improve community health, with the latest County Health Rankings showing a link between civic engagement and community health.

The rankings, completed by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also found that communities that provide places for residents to gather—a key element of the built environment and social determinants of health—also have better health outcomes.

“Our findings reveal that people and places thrive when all residents have the chance to participate in their communities,” Sheri Johnson, principal investigator of County Health Rankings & Roadmaps and director of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said in a statement. “History shows that we can remake systems and structures through civic participation that are beneficial to all.”

The researchers indicated that more access to civic infrastructure—schools, parks, or libraries—impact numerous social determinants of health. Places with more civic infrastructure saw not only better health outcomes, but also higher educational attainment, higher household incomes, and lower income inequality. People who live in communities with more community infrastructure also tended to live longer, the researchers said.

That is because civic infrastructure lays the groundwork for civic engagement, which the researchers noted is linked to overall health and well-being.

For example, counties in the top 10 percent for health outcomes have more access to civic infrastructure. Nine in 10 of these counties have access to broadband internet compared to just over 7 in 10; meanwhile, access to libraries is higher in healthier communities than less healthy communities by nearly a third. The healthiest 10 percent of communities have almost twice as many parks or recreation sites compared to the least healthy communities.

Notably, life expectancy in places with low civic engagement and poor civic infrastructure is around three years shorter than in places with more resources, coming in at 75.4 and 78.5 years, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the report did note a link between health outcomes, places with less civic infrastructure and engagement, and places with histories of structural racism. Overall, places with less civic infrastructure have also experienced disinvestment as a result of structural racism.

Civic infrastructure is lacking in communities along the US/Mexico border, within Black communities, in places with American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribes, and within Appalachia.

Given these disparities, the Rankings’ authors suggested more investment in civic infrastructure.

“The findings in this year’s County Health Rankings call attention to the fact that past and present forms of discrimination and disinvestment matter,” Marjory Givens, co-director of County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, said in the press release. “We can only share in a healthy, civically active future for our communities by acknowledging our past and working together to repair and realize what it means to thrive.”

Particularly, they recommended investing in community centers, like libraries and other public spaces, that help foster in-person connection. Additionally, they suggested that youth leadership programs, mentoring, and civic education could help improve civic knowledge and skills.

Finally, the authors suggested creating voter registration and turnout initiatives. This will improve civic engagement, they said, and increase representation.

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