Amongst the mix of life skills classes that a new program is offering to out-of-school youth in Union County, New Jersey, is a subject that is rather unusual in workforce training programs: Healthy living.
The other subjects being offered by the Union County board of Chosen Freeholders’ Second Chance program are oldies and goodies: Leadership, financial literacy, vocational school familiarity and entrepreneurship. Those are all absolutely vital topics for young men and women who have gotten a rough educational start, most often due to socio-economic struggles that most schools don’t have the resources to address.
But so is wellness. Poverty and poor health, after all, are the proverbial chicken and egg. Economically marginalized groups have more trouble accessing the kind of information, food, medicine, activities, habitation, and medical care that can help prevent and treat sickness and disease. That, in turn, can lead to an inability to work, stoke debilitating debt, and prompt bankruptcy. The cycle that results can be devastating and last for generations.
That’s why we’ll be watching with great anticipation to see how the Second Chance program — which includes health curriculum and access to a YMCA fitness room — helps its participants break out of this cycle.
Meanwhile, we’d like to encourage anyone who is planning or providing workforce innovation and opportunity initiatives to consider the role of health education in their programs.
Here are three easy places to get started:
Accessing healthy food. People suffering from poverty in America are more likely to lack reliable transportation, and yet also more likely to live in so-called “food deserts” — areas with little or no access to fresh, healthy food. That means they’re all-too-often missing out on what is almost inarguably the most important factor in healthy living. Poor eating, after all, leads to a lack of energy, poor concentration and sickness – all of which are prohibitive for people trying to find and keep good work.
Leaders of programs working to help individuals improve their career status, then, should also consider helping those individuals improve their access to healthy food — through mini farmers’ markets, group trips to supermarkets and help with connections to food-support resources.
Smoking cessation programs. Individuals who grew up in poverty are both more likely to start smoking (the reasons for this are fascinating and surprising) and less likely to be able to access the resources to quit. But as anyone who has ever fought a smoking habit can tell you, cigarettes aren’t cheap. And neither are the health conditions that often result from smoking. Smoking has further been shown to have significantly negative impacts on people’s careers.
So, want to help workforce opportunity program participants save money, have better health and have more successful careers? Invest in connecting these individuals to smoking cessation resources.
- Mental health help. Almost everyone now recognizes the devastating impact warfare can have on a person’s long-term mental health. Increasingly, albeit way too slowly, we’re learning how to address these impacts and better support our nation’s veterans. What many people don’t recognize is that socio-economic struggles can have similarly devastating mental health consequences. And while our nation has finally turned a corner in addressing the mental health needs of veterans, the needs of people who grew up in poverty have been virtually unaddressed.
While a small number of workforce opportunity programs might have the resources to connect participants to mental health professionals, most simply don’t. But self-care can be incredibly effective and it takes very few resources to educate people on how to improve their mental health one small step at a time. Mental Health America, for instance, has offered a list of 31 free or nearly-free things that anyone can do to improve their mental health. That’s the kind of information we can and should be putting into the hands of workforce opportunity programs.