By Scott Robertson
US News & World Report (USN&WR) ran an article recently about Johnson City, Tennessee. The thrust of the piece was that even though the city has high availability of quality health care, it does not crack the list of top 500 healthiest cities in the nation. The same statement could be made in general terms for the entire region. Health care is available, but the population is less healthy than that of the U.S., on average.
The article included comments from ETSU College of Public Health Dean Dr. Randy Wykoff, whom we’ve often quoted regarding the interrelation of health, education and economic prosperity. Wykoff told USN&WR, “People talk about the independence and self-reliance of Appalachian folks and maybe they won’t seek health care. But some of that is, if you’ve been poor a long time and have never had the ability to pay for or access to health care, you don’t seek it.”
I think Dr. Wykoff is onto something. The biggest deterrent to bridging the gap between health of the population and utilization of healthcare resources may also be the single biggest deterrent to prosperity in the region: mindset.
Too often in central Appalachian culture, ambition is considered the eighth deadly sin. Many of us can remember having been told by someone, “Don’t try to go above your raising,” or “It was good enough for your daddy, it’s good enough for you.”
Folks who fear their values are under attack, as many citizens of Appalachia do, often go into a defensive posture against anything that’s different than what they grew up with. In some cases, that something may be seeking help when facing a problem like addiction, depression, or even physical ailments. In some cases it may be seeking education or the opportunity to advance beyond one’s previous standing.
But you can be more successful than your daddy was in providing for your family without in any way rejecting the values that your family rightfully holds dear. I fear many of our citizens never contemplate that possibility.
And when people like Hillary Clinton call regions like this one that supported her opponent in the last presidential election “backward,” they’re missing that point too. This notion that values like faith and family are anathema to ambition and growth has to be beaten back.
The Business Journal has, for 30 years now, supported a unified effort to grow the economy of the entire region. Over time we have come to understand that such an effort includes, as Wykoff says, improving education and population health. Without healthy people, our businesses would have neither employees nor customers. Without people educated enough to do the jobs, employers would have no reason to be here.
Today, I would add to that the necessity of addressing a sizable portion of the population’s mindset toward ambition. The values our people cherish do not conflict with ambition in any way. Those values give our people strength. Imagine that strength, combined with improved health, with more pathways from the education system into the workforce and with a burning desire to live better lives than the generation that came before.
That’s a population, a workforce, that can do everything that needs to be done to make this region great.
Mrs. Clinton’s husband once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” I believe there is no problem in this region too great to be successfully addressed by the people of this region, if only we summon the ambition and unity of purpose to do so.
That message needs to get out. It needs to get out to the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs who are growing up in our schools and churches today. It needs to get out to the political and business leaders who can get behind regional efforts. And it needs to get out to those outside the region who could bring jobs and investment here if only they would stop painting us as backward by definition.
Hillary Clinton believes it takes a village to raise a child. I believe if we raise our children to be healthy, educated, ambitious and faithful, they will raise up our villages.