09:29 AM

Improving Health for NJ’s Communities of Color Means Tipping the Scales of Social Justice



A new grant from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey advances equality to reduce health disparities. See how.

Jonathon Pearson Horizon

To live up to its ideals of equality and justice for all, New Jersey still has a road to travel.

Take, for example, household wealth. By some measures, our state is one of the most prosperous. And yet, for many New Jerseyans prosperity remains beyond their reach. White households have a median wealth of $352,000 – the highest in the United States. On the other hand, Black households have a median wealth of just $6,100.

Many factors account for this astounding gap, such as unequal rates of homeownership and educational and employment opportunities. Not coincidentally, these same factors act as barriers that impact access to health care and affect health outcomes.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ) and its charitable foundation are working to address these barriers and help build healthier communities. That’s why we’ve increased our investment in programs, partnerships and initiatives specifically intended to promote greater equity for communities of color and advance the cause of social justice in and beyond health care.

The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey recently granted $100,000 to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (the Institute) to complete two critical projects related to the youth justice system and the impact of COVID-19 on New Jersey’s Black community.

A longtime partner of Horizon BCBSNJ, the Institute seeks to break down the walls of systemic inequality that hold back people of color. “We advocate to build systems that empower people to realize their radical potential,” says Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the Institute.

How to keep youths out of the justice system

While New Jersey has drastically reduced its overall prison population over the past 20 years, huge disparities remain in the incarceration rates of Black youths compared with their white counterparts. Black youths are 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than white youth—the highest racial disparity in America, even though research shows that Black and white kids commit offenses at similar rates, said Haygood.

Beyond the toll on individuals and families, these incarceration practices pose an enormous burden on the state. It costs about $60 million to imprison 200 kids statewide. Compare that number with the $16 million that’s spent on community-based programs to help kids avoid prison. Put differently, New Jersey spends $300,000 each year to incarcerate each kid.

“Imagine what you could do in the life of a young person with that kind of annual investment,” asked Haygood.

As part of The Horizon Foundation grant, the Institute will explore the sources of these disparities, particularly around how trauma and mental health issues can lead to a young person’s involvement in the justice system, and work to create a new system that builds up our kids, not youth prisons for them.

Through its research, the Institute is looking to create a two-pronged approach to change. “On one hand, we want to see what it takes to prevent kids from entering the system. And two, we want to give the kids already in the system the tools to be able to return to their communities and lead fulfilling lives,” said Haygood.

“It’s all about building up kids instead of locking up kids,” he added.

Mapping COVID-19 deaths to expose systemic cracks

The pandemic has touched all of our lives, but it is having a disproportionate impact on Black New Jerseyans. Black residents account for 15 percent of the total population in the state, but more than 20 percent of COVID-19-related deaths.

In collaboration with Rutgers Law School and Monmouth University – and drawing on the experience of Horizon BCBSNJ experts – the Institute will map out the state’s coronavirus cases, deaths, and testing capacity using data on race, ethnicity, gender and age. The result will be a city-by-city guide on the impact that COVID-19 has made on communities of color.

“By plotting these data visually, we’ll also be able to see the intersection of other challenges such as wealth gaps and areas where there is insufficient internet access for remote learning”, said Haygood. “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed cracks in our society’s foundation and they’ve erupted into an earthquake for communities of color,” said Haygood.

The immediate goal is to help state officials direct resources to the hardest-hit areas – from COVID-19 testing to increased access to care. “But once we get to the other side of this pandemic, we’ll know what needs to be done to prepare for the next crisis,” said Haygood.

Committed to advancing the causes of justice

Before these current research projects, the Institute already had much success in promoting areas of economic, criminal and democratic justice. The Institute’s advocacy has led to the historic restoration of voting rights for 83,000 people on parole and probation; automatic and online voter registration; a $15 minimum wage; an independent prosecutor bill to address police misconduct; and the reporting of COVID-19 racial data.

Horizon BCBSNJ has helped support this work for more than a decade. But this summer, after the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing social protests, the company expanded its commitment to advance the causes of equality and justice. This meant continuing to take an active role in New Jersey’s communities, engaging our 5,500-strong, diverse workforce in forums about racism, and expanding our partnership with the Institute.

These actionable steps align with the Institute’s own motto: Do Social Justice. “Each one of us has a part in the ‘Do’ to help our most marginalized communities,” said Haygood.