The further south that someone lives in Maine, the more likely he is to do things that are good for his health, to avoid doing things that are bad for his health and to generally be healthy. That’s the conclusion of the University of Wisconsin’s new, county-by-county national health study, which rates Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York counties favorably compared to the U.S. median.

But the same isn’t true for much of the rest of Maine. It’s a disparity that’s closely tied to money and schooling: Those who have more do better than those who have less. To help narrow the health gap in Maine, we need to seize on opportunities to address the income and education gap, not just talk about them.

Though it’s not surprising, the social and economic divergence between different parts of the state is startling. Of the socioeconomic factors measured in the County Health Rankings, joblessness, the percentage of children in poverty and the number of deaths from accidental injuries are all far higher in the least healthy counties (Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington) than in southern coastal Maine.

At the same time, the percentage of people with at least some college education is noticeably lower in rural Maine.

These differences shape people’s lives and their health. Compared to middle- and upper-income Americans, the poor have far fewer choices regarding employment, health care, education, food and housing. For example, they’re far less likely to land the kind of job that pays enough for them to serve nutritious meals, or to live in a neighborhood with quality schools.

Policies that aim at reducing poverty, then, will also have an impact on communities’ well-being. The minimum-wage bill now before the Legislature could go a long way toward helping families in low-income areas of rural Maine, especially given the high percentage of single-parent households there, which depend on one paycheck.

The state also needs to fulfill its pledge to use federal dollars to expand workplace skill development for MaineCare recipients. Improving the programs that help Mainers transition off welfare should be a priority as well.

College credentials are critical to getting a well-paying position with benefits, so boosting aid to Maine’s public universities and community colleges should be on the agenda in Augusta. But the investment should start far earlier than that: Supporting early childhood education will help prepare kids from less-affluent families to keep up with their peers and stay in school.

The new health ranking statistics must spur action. We know enough about what makes people sick and what keeps them healthy that we should be developing and moving ahead with specific strategies. The long-term well-being of our state depends on it.

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