Wondering whether your Congressperson is actually doing a good job? Is there some type of metric besides number of times the Congressperson tweeted expressions of outrage and used ALL CAPS? Well, it could help to see what’s really happening with the health of people in your Congressional District. After all, improving the lives of people in the district is kind of what a House of Representatives person is supposed to do, right? Say, for example, more people in your District are binge drinking than any other District. You may, in turn, be inclined to tell your Congressperson, “Maybe it’s time to bottle up the rhetoric and figure out what’s going on here”
That’s why the new Congressional District Health Dashboard (CDHD), just launched by a team from the New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, can be a useful tool to help separate out the Congresspersons who are really serving their people from the, well, tools. This online tool can provide hours of fun, allowing you to look up any of the 435 Congressional districts or the District of Columbia to find out what’s happening there with 36 key health-related measures. Why play Card Against Humanity at your next party when you can play “let’s see what’s going on with humanity” in your favorite—or maybe your least favorite—Congressperson’s district?
For example, say you live in the 16th Congressional District of Texas and were wondering how your district has been doing when it comes to things like what you breath in every day, binge drinking, and breast cancer deaths. You could enter that district name into the CDHD and get the following results:
Yikes, 10.7 μg/m³ of particulate matter ain’t particularly good. It’s worse than the U.S. average, which already is “airing” on the side of bad. While having 15.8% of adults reporting binge drinking in the past 30 days isn’t something to raise a drink to, it is at least around the U.S. average. Meanwhile, 17.9 deaths due to breast cancer per 100,000 females is actually better than the U.S. average. So the first three measures on this page seem a bit like a Goldilocks and the Three Bears situation with one being too high compared to the U.S. average, one being just at the U.S. average, and one being…well you get the picture.
Speaking of pictures, the CDHD also has various graphics like the following that can show you the breakdown of the demographics in the district:
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, these are worth about 766 thousand people, giving you a sense of where they fall on the age and racial and ethnic spectrum.
The three health-related metrics seen above are just a snapshot of all the different health outcome, social and economic, physical environment, health behavior, and clinical care metrics that you can pull up for different districts. This way the next time a Congressperson says something fairly outrageous about gun control or violence, you can then jump that Congressperson’s district on the CDHD and check out whether their number of deaths due to firearm homicide per 100,000 population is better or worse than the U.S. average. Or whenever a Congressperson starts spouting out some conspiracy theory nonsense, you can have a better idea of how that Congressperson’s district is doing with real stuff like cardiovascular disease deaths, Covid-19 risk, income inequality, rent burden, air pollution, lead exposure, mental distress, and and yes, binge drinking rates. It’s a way of better holding a Congressperson’s feet to the fire or in some cases the space laser.
You can also get a better sense of what’s happening with different districts across the country using the CDHD maps because surprise, surprise, not everything is the same everywhere. Some districts are doing a whole lot worse than others. For example, here’s a national map of the uninsured:
As you can see, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida each appear to have more districts with darker colors, meaning a greater percentage of people without health insurance. That clearly is not a great thing to write home about since you aren’t going to win many arguments that end with, “But we have a greater percentage of uninsured people.”
Here’s what close-up of Texas looks like:
Notice how the Southern portion of Texas has quite a lot of dark blue, not a happy situation.
The U.S. maps can also show the large variation in the percentage of people reporting mental distress, ranging from nine to 21 percent. Yeah, things aren’t exactly great when nearly a quarter of your district is suffering mental distress. You can also find differences between rural, suburban, and urban districts such as suburban districts on average having 194 deaths from cardiovascular disease per 100,000 people versus 215 for urban and 225 for rural districts. That doesn’t seem like random variation.
There are also, guess what, disparities among different races and ethnicities when it comes to various health outcomes. For example, more than three-quarters of the districts in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina have twice as many Black newborns being born underweight than White babies. That doesn’t quite jibe with those who claim that everyone and every race has equal opportunity in America.
You’ll find lots of differences among districts when it comes to access to healthy foods too. And if you are wondering, “Why can’t they just order better food online,” keep in mind that only 40 to 50 percent of households in rural Southern districts have high-speed internet versus the 80 to 90 percent in urban districts. So don’t assume that everyone has the same access to hours of cat videos that you may.
This dashboard is the product of about a year’s worth of work by a team at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine led by Marc N. Gourevitch, MD, MPH, Chair of the Department of Population Health, Lorna E. Thorpe, PhD, Professor of Population Health, and Neil Kleiman, PhD, Professor of the Practice in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to construct and launch the dashboard. Gourevitch related that a few years ago they had recognized “an absence of data that is specific to Congressional District level and sought to close that loop. That idea had percolated about a year or two until about a year ago, we crystalized plans and launched them into motion.” Their team had already launched a City Health dashboard in 2018 that currently allows you to search for and view data on over 40 different health-related measures for over 900 cities in the U.S. So it was relatively straightforward for them to “dashboard” right into this next project.
The NYU team, which included Jacqueline Betro, MPA, Samantha Breslin, MPA, Alex Chen, MPH, Taylor Lampe, MPH, Yuruo Li, PhD, Isabel Nelson, MPH, Becky Ofrane, MPH, Caleigh Paster, Ben Spoer, PhD, Jay Stadelman, MPH, Anne Vierse, MS, and Noah Zazanis, MS, pulled data from a variety of different sources. Burness created content for the website. Forum One developed the website. The Bipartisan Policy Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also contributed. And in about a year—which can be shorter than the time it takes for Congress to make a decision—the CDHD became a reality.
Gourevitch did emphasize that “no dataset is perfect. We took the most rigorous ones available. These were better places to start than the alternative [of not using data]. It’s important to look at data and to have it start conversations.”
As Giridhar Mallya, MD, MSHP, a Senior Policy Officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, explained, “For government to make good decisions, government needs good data.” He added, “Data is not the be all and end all. It is just an ingredient. But it can help hold leaders accountable.”
The districts were based on the 118th Congressional Districts. With all the arguments over and accusations about gerrymandering, these districts may change over time. Mallya mentioned that the CDHD will change accordingly. He emphasized, “The districts don’t always follow the lines of communities.”
Indeed, that’s not the only way that politicians don’t always follow what’s actually happening in their communities. These days it seems more common for various Congresspersons to rail against things like Sesame Street characters, Mr. Potato Head, M&Ms, and other things that don’t really affect the health and well being of the populations that these Congresspersons are supposed to represent. Unless people are on nothing-but-M&Ms diets or Mr. Potato Head goes really, really rogue with a firearm, focusing on such matter appears to ways of distracting from what’s really going on, from the real issues that Congresspersons need to address. Perhaps having more data can help “dashboard” some of these distraction tactics.