Where a ‘Different Experience’ Means Jobs, Fitness and a Better Life: RWJF Culture of Health Prize winner San Pablo, CA

The people of San Pablo, California—a small, diverse, working-class city in the San Francisco Bay area—deeply understand the connection between economic well-being and health, having faced tough times together.

During the worst of the last recession, one out of five workers in this community of 31,000—one of the poorest cities in Contra Costa County—was unemployed. The city’s jobless rate has subsided to a current level of 6.9 percent of the workforce, but still ranks significantly higher than the state (4.8%) and national (4.9%) levels.

Local leaders have made removing barriers to employment and job training two of its top priorities. Voters have registered their strong support: In 2012, they approved increasing the local sales tax to fund more job training, youth services and safety initiatives.

“Poor people have typically the worst health outcomes,” says former mayor Leonard McNeil, who now is president of a local wastewater treatment district. “In order to effectively address health disparity, a city has to address the root causes of it.”

A new nonprofit, supported and partially funded by the city, has taken on the job of expanding opportunity through job creation, cultivating and supporting small businesses, and preparing more people to start businesses of their own.

Attitudes are changing. “You see people who now believe that they can have careers versus jobs,” says Leslay Choy, general manager of the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “That’s a huge piece, that they understand the value of what it means to work and move themselves into a living-wage career.”

San Pablo is a young city (55 percent are 40 or younger) and diverse (89 percent are non-white). Most jobs come from small businesses in the city’s many shopping centers, as well as a tribal casino and nearby East Bay refineries.

San Pablo’s children are getting particular attention. More than half of them are overweight or obese, the highest rate in the county. The city is increasing ways for families to live more active lives and to engage young people, so that they are more deeply woven into the fabric of the community.

The city partnered with state and federal agencies to remediate vacant railroad land into the Rumrill sports park, raising some of the funds through the New Markets Tax Credit program. It also used these federal tax credits to build a new community center, adjacent to a middle school, giving students easy access to free or affordable after-school activities, such as the teen lounge and classes like ballet and karate.

The Culture of Health Prize gives San Pablo encouragement. “We’re going to continue along a path that is truly going to take folks to a different experience of living in San Pablo,” Choy says.

Read more at rwjf.org.