Out of Control Policy Blog

First Lady Recommends Health Impact Assessments for New Housing

The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity recently released its report and recommendations for getting kids off the couch and into the streets to exercise and shed those extra pounds. Without a doubt, the growing number (and share) of overweight children is a problem and a challenge. A key element missing from the discussion, however, seems to be the role parents play--let alone the kids themselves play--in independently and rationally making sure the right choices are made about food and exercise.

This is a little off my area of expertise, except the task force report recommends changes (Chapter V, Section C) in the way kids get to school and the way housing is built. A good summary of the main thrust of these proposals is contained on DC streetsblog post. The good news is that the report highlights the inefficiency of transporting kids to school by bus. The bad news is that the report doesn't appear to distinguish between cars and buses, and that cars provide a number of benefits, including cleaner fuels, personal time bewteen parents and children, and increased personal safety.

But, here's the real issue for me. According to DC Streetsblog:

"The task force also encourages local governments to conduct "Health Impact Assessments," or HIAs, before building new developments. The HIA concept, similar to environmental reviews of federally funded transport projects that are currently mandated by law, would evaluate the effect of construction and land-use decisions on the physical activity of community residents."

This will be a good way to shut down new housing development. Environmental impact statements are one of the most effective tools available to antigrowth interests that want to shut down housing development. Adding on an even more ephemeral "health impact assessment" will make the process of entitlement even worse.

Inevitably, the health criteria will be stacked against any housing that isn't high density and connected on a grid. The criteria, for example, won't be able to factor in personal family choices about health, nutrition, and exercise. What, for example, if kids are active in sports? How will this be handled in the context of a health impact assessment in terms of balancing other factors the experts consider detract from encouraing healthy activity? More fundamentally, it assumes the government (local, state, and federal) has an affirmative mandate to structure what are now private housing choices to meet federal public policy goals.

This is simply another example of how the regulatory state is crowding out individual choice and freedom on the flimsiest of criteria.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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