To understand how the dozens of individual facts and metrics discussed Wednesday paint a picture of Cortland County’s physical, mental, social and economic health, consider just one: fluoride.
About 90 nonprofit, government, education and other officials met at SUNY Cortland to review Cortland Counts, an annual review of the county’s health and well-being. The metrics, or measurements, ranged six categories: health, youth, housing, sustainability, economy and economic inequality.
It’s difficult to put them all together to get a coherent picture of Cortland County, agreed Jackie Leaf, executive director of Seven Valleys Health Coalition, which organized the forum, and Mary McGuire, director of the Institute for Civic Engagement at SUNY Cortland. It takes analysis and a willingness to see how they all relate. The metrics are abstract measurements of the larger picture.
“These things do seem small,” McGuire said. “But all these things come together. The larger goal to me is to create a healthier, better-educated community not in danger of falling.”
To demonstrate: fluoride.
Fluoride links to health
Metric: Only one municipality in Cortland County fluoridates its water, the village of Marathon. That means tens of thousands of children must work harder to keep healthy teeth.
Metric: 23.6 percent of Cortland County’s third-graders have untreated tooth decay. The goal is 21.6 percent.
“For your overall health, your ZIP code is more important than your genetic code,” said Mark Webster, chief executive of Cortland Regional Medical Center. His community health goals regarding nutrition, exercise, smoking and alcohol or drug abuse are important, but he confesses that a hospital does more to treat those problems than solve them.
Because communities don’t fluoridate, more doctors, not just dentists, now use a fluoride varnish on children, said Patty Thon, supervising early intervention service coordinator at the Cortland County Health Department. Dental health education is also now part of pre-school programs.
Fact: Economic health is closely tied to physical health. People can’t earn if their health means they can’t work.
Fact: Health, like tooth decay, is a reason that children miss school, but children who miss more than 20 days a school year achieve significantly less.
Health links to education
Metric: 12 percent of Cortland City School District students are chronically absent — absent so often their parents could be accused of educational neglect. That figure is 6.5 percent in Homer schools.
“You can’t punish a kid into wanting to come to school,” said Cortland Superintendent of Schools Michael Hoose, outlining programs he and Homer Superintendent of Schools Nancy Ruscio put in place to reward good attendance.
“Christmas shopping and hunting are not acceptable excused absences,” Hoose added.
“Although I did work in a district where the first day of hunting season was a snow day.”
Fact: Parents in poverty are not convinced that education is the way out of poverty, Hoose said.
“We need to get kids off the streets out of the stores, out of the homes and into school where we can educate them,” Ruscio said.
Education links to quality of life
Metric: Cortland County has only 7,148 residents between the ages of35 and 44, said Mack Cook, the city of Cortland’s director of administration and finance. That’s the age group with the most energy and disposable income that can help a community develop.
That is also the group most likely to have a young family, and these people look for good neighborhoods, good schools and good quality of life.
That’s why the city has a five-year, $250,000 plan to improve parks, a$1 million renovation of the Wickwire Pool, and looks to carve out a share of$1.5 billion in state grants for the Upstate Revitalization Initiative or a part of the $100 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative for quality-of-life improvements.
“Cortland is well suited to where they work and where they play,” Mack said. “Nobody takes their paycheck and re-invests it in their office.”
Economic development projects like that will change the demographics of Cortland, he said, demographics that create stability for schools and opportunities for healthy living.
Quality of life links to prosperity
Metric: 34.8 percent of Cortland children are overweight or obese, compared with 31.3 percent nationally. Cortland’s goal is 23 percent.
Metric: 65.4 percent of the entire population is similarly overweight or obese, compared with 63.8 percent nationally.
That’s why improvements to Dwyer Memorial Park’s hiking trails in 2015 and promotion of trails at Lime Hollow Nature Center and in state forests in Cortland County are so important, said Rebecca Canzano, public health programs manager for the Cortland County Health Department.
Health and education are critical factors in a person’s fiscal success, and money opens doors, even doors with bars, McGuire said. “The more money you have, the better your chances are in the justice system.”
Metric: Nearly 60 percent of Americans were in the middle class in the 1970s. Today, less than 50 percent are. Cortland’s poverty rate exceeds the state’s.
Metric: 60 percent of Americans’ income went to the bottom 90 percent of earners in the 1970s.
Today, 49.8 percent. Cortland’s per-capita income is only about 70 percent of the state average.
Income inequality is growing, McGuire said. “The last time we were as bad as we are now is the 1930s,” she said. “That’s not a good time to compare yourself to.”
Prosperity links to fluoride
Metric: 16.6 percent of Cortland residents live in housing that’s either overcrowded, expensive, lacks a kitchen or lacks plumbing, said Kevin Pagini, a planner with the county Health Department. Some of that is student housing, but some is just substandard.
Pagini has spent the better part of two years working on a new comprehensive housing plan to increase middle-class housing. The market today is either too expensive, or targets the low-income. “There’s no in-between,” he said.
And a better supply of midrange housing will help families as they try to keep upwardly mobile.
But when the water comes out of the plumbing in those homes, it will lack an ingredient important in health: fluoride.