06/06/2013 02:45 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Let's Not Settle for Less

A new national survey of African-Americans by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health, and NPR paints a fascinating picture: over half of those polled report that their lives have generally improved in recent years.

This is a remarkable observation given the economic climate in which we live today, and is a welcome sign of resiliency at a time when so many are struggling to recover from the recession. But what of the other half, who report lower satisfaction with their lives -- especially lower-income African-Americans?

Almost half of those polled are concerned that they or someone in their household might be out of work in the next year. Nationally, African American unemployment is nearly double the average rate -- 13.9 versus 7.8 percent, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Half of all those surveyed say their finances are not so good or poor. And those folks are less confident that they have the resources to handle a major illness, and are less likely to view their communities favorably, especially with regard to crime and public safety. This view of community is not tangential; rather, the health and safety of the community is key.

As the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, I find this connection between community health and overall happiness critical. This new survey reinforces what we've known for a long time: that where we live influences our health and well-being, and that we must be targeted and strategic in providing opportunities to make choices that lead to a long and healthy life.

Inequities today are increasingly decided by income and revealed by ZIP code. Communities that are better off have good schools, safe streets, ample parks, grocery stores with fruits and vegetables, and quality housing, while other communities don't.

These benchmarks are not just indicators of good neighborhoods; they are also contributors to better health. Higher education levels, public safety, better recreational opportunities, healthier eating, better access to preventive care, and less stress all help improve the health of community members. And parents who live in these communities have more resources to raise healthy children.

By building communities of opportunity, we can break the cycle of generational poverty, and strengthen the cycle of generational health, prosperity, and happiness. At PolicyLink, we work on programs and advance policies to create communities of opportunity. Efforts to increase access to fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and coordinated community supports to improve educational outcomes, like Promise Neighborhoods, are effective in low-income communities that are predominantly African American, Latino, White, Asian-American, or mixed.

We have an opportunity to take these poll findings and the decades of experience working in communities, and do something to make our country work not just for half of us (or less), but for all of us. I serve on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America, which will convene this month to closely examine these and other solutions. We will explore the proposals, the science that supports them, and how they work in real life. We will make recommendations that promote successes so that a zip code isn't the determinant of health. All think tanks, research organizations, and concerned citizens should take the time to consider how these cost-effective solutions can have a huge impact on eliminating the challenges facing the nation's most vulnerable communities. It's not just the moral thing to do; it's common sense.

We won't succeed as a nation, and be able to compete globally, unless all people have the opportunity to participate and prosper. An inequitable economy is an unstable economy. We can create an inclusive economy in which all can participate and prosper. We shouldn't settle for anything less.