Monday, May 16, 2016

1st Congressional District ranks among worst in nation in well-being

A 2015 study ranks Kentucky's 1st Congressional District
among the nation's worst in well-being for its residents. See how
the district measures up by clicking image to enlarge.

Nowhere are the disparities between the haves and have nots in America more apparent than in California, but in Kentucky, that disparity gives way to an apparent desperateness from one end of the state to the other.

Kentucky, particularly western and far eastern portions of the state, is mostly populated with have nots when it comes to well-being, according to a recent Measure of America study, a project of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Social Science Research Council (SSRC). The 1st Congressional District's abysmal rankings in three fundamental areas determining the general welfare of a population helps underscore the importance of Tuesday's primary election.

The 65-page study of well-being, Geographies of Opportunity, ranks each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts and the District of Columbia on how its residents are faring in the areas health, access to knowledge and living standards. The rankings simply provide a way to measure based on geography what the independent, non-profit research organization SSRC calls the American Human Development Index.

Kentucky's 1st Congressional District, which encompasses most of western Kentucky, including Crittenden and Livingston counties, ranks in the bottom 10 percent in all three fundamental areas studied. The state's 5th Congressional District, nestled in far eastern Kentucky in the heart of Appalachia, ranks even lower.

Retiring Congressman Ed Whitfield, who has represented the 1st District for 22 years, said the task ahead to improve the quality of life in western Kentucky will require conservative leadership on Capitol Hill.

“I believe the most effective way for Congress to improve the quality of life in the 1st Congressional District is by advancing policies that promote economic growth, create jobs and expand opportunities for Kentuckians,” the Hopkinsville Republican told The Crittenden Press. “The House Republican majority has passed legislation to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, simplify the tax code, promote educational opportunities for our students, expand domestic energy production, make it easier to hire veterans and to empower the American worker.”

However, Republicans have held the majority in the House in all but four years – 2007-11 – since Whitfield first took office in 1995, and the district is still suffering from poor health, subpar living standards and an apparent weak emphasis education.

Of the 436 districts, Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District ranks only 18 from the bottom in Measuring America’s overall human development index, which is a composite score of health, living standards and access to knowledge. The nation’s highest rating came from California District 18 that includes the San Francisco Bay Area. Next door, the Golden State’s Central Valley (District 21) reflected the worst score.

The top 10 congressional districts in terms of human development are all in the greater metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The bottom 10 disproportionately comprise struggling rural and urban areas in the South. These areas face interlocking challenges in terms of residential segregation by income and race, poor health, under-resourced educational infrastructure and limited job opportunities.

Whitfield said work to improve the lifestyle of a district as large as Kentucky’s 1st District, which includes 35 counties, takes time.

“Communities and regions of the country cannot change overnight, but (House Republicans) can and are taking the incremental steps necessary to promote change and improve lives,” he explained.

Three of the four candidates in next week’s GOP congressional primary to fill Whitfield’s open seat discussed with The Press the issues they would be facing as congressman should they earn the nomination and go on to beat Democratic nominee Samuel L. Gaskins in November. Jason Batts of Clinton said the Measure of America study is emblematic of small town America.

“Being from a small town,” he said, “I know firsthand how we the people struggle with the policies implemented by career politicians. It’s our small towns that have felt the worst impact of Washington’s policies.

“We need to pass a balanced budget amendment, end the rules and regulations coming out of Washington and reform our tax system so we have more money in our pockets. These are the types of policies that will increase the economic opportunity for all of us.”

Perhaps the most telling result of the poor overall ranking for rural parts of Kentucky is found in life expectancy. Congressional District 5 in eastern Kentucky rates last in the nation in life expectancy at only 72.9 years. Just 14 spots up from last, where residents can expect to live 75.5 years, is District 1. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 79.1 years and tops out in the bay area of San Francisco (District 19) at 83.9 years.

If prosperity is measured in dollars alone, western Kentucky is scraping the bottom again. The median income is only $24,070, more than $6,000 off the national average and almost $37,000 behind someone living in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan (New York District 12), America’s most affluent district. The median earnings in Kentucky District 1 are poor enough to place it 394 of 436. California District 12 in the slums of L.A. had the lowest median earnings at $20,054.

Mike Pape, a Republican congressional candidate from Hopkinsville, largely blames President Obama for crippling one of the biggest economic drivers in western Kentucky.

“It is hard to grow an economy where coal is one of our largest economic drivers while Obama’s EPA wages their war on coal,” he said. “This isn’t just a war on a mineral or companies. This is a war on coal jobs.

“I have seen the effects firsthand that this has had on coal miners and their families from my 21 years of working with Congressman Whitfield. Our economic growth can’t flourish while we’re losing well-paying jobs to the EPA.”

Of course, one of the road blocks to attaining better paying jobs or starting a new career after a mine layoff is education. District 1 in Kentucky ranked only 21 spots from the bottom in terms of percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree. Just 15.5 percent of the people living in the district have earned a four-year degree compared with 69.2 percent – tops in the nation – in the same New York district where earnings were highest. California’s Central Valley (District 12) that attained the overall worst rating in the study, ranked last in education with only 8.3 percent having attained a degree. That agricultural district is home to tens of thousands of migrant farm workers.

James Comer, the presumed frontrunner in Tuesday’s 1st District race, says western Kentucky suffers from a brain drain. Over-regulation by the federal government is forcing those with an education to go elsewhere to seek employment, he claims.

“In my travels across the district, one major problem that I see is that our best and brightest leave home to go to college and do not return back home,” he explained. “In order to keep our best and brightest young people in the rural counties across the 1st Congressional District, we must create more good-paying jobs. The biggest impediments to job creation in rural areas are the federal government's burdensome regulations, unfair trade policies and lack of infrastructure.”

Improving the welfare of the people in District 1 and other disaffected areas of the country will be a long, uphill battle, Congressman Whitfield warns. It is also one that will take more than a single congressman to solve.

“It is essential that we have presidential leadership that promotes economic growth,” he said, citing a Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute study that found 6 million jobs lost in the U.S. from 2009 to 2014 tied to a decline of small businesses. “According to this report, the primary cause for these declines is because of regulations that have come from the Obama Administration.”

But whether studies like Measuring America are enough to get voters to the polls remains to be seen. Crittenden County Clerk Carolyn Byford expects a low turnout Tuesday, perhaps 17 percent, she guessed.