Hardly a hard place to live
To The New York Times Editiorial Board:
In June of this year, The New York Times weighed our county in the balance and found us wanting. To our horror, we read that the Times had analyzed our home place and determined we were one of the top 10 “hardest places to live in the U.S.” The bad news was delivered online by “The Upshot”, a Time’s website.
This cut carried an exceptional sting because it was administered by none other than The New York Times, that most venerable of American institutions. In high school, my father had commended to me the articles of James Reston and, later, William Safire as examples of persuasive writing and clear thinking. I learned to respect the NYT’s history and influence in the early 70s when I devoured Gay Talese’s, The Kingdom and the Power. Now, my home territory was in the crosshairs of that same journalist colossus whose executives counseled presidents, and whose editorial pages took America to task for racial injustice and a needless Vietnam War.
But in this instance, The Times had a more modest purpose. In the words of “Upshot” editor, Alan Flippen, this study was an attempt to use demographic data “to see if we could tease out an alternative to the Detroit-focused poverty narrative that has dominated the media lately.”
Not surprisingly, when the teasing was over, Mr. Flippen had found the alternative narrative he was looking for …but it was hardly an original one. The data selected was used to rank all 3135 counties in the U.S., from the flourishing to the struggling. Given that 6 of the 10 lowest-ranking counties are in Kentucky’s coal mining country, the upshot of The Upshot’s research is a story we’ve been hearing at least since Lyndon Johnson and the 60’s War on Poverty: some of the most desperate and inveterate poor live in Appalachia.
I hope the NYT’s efforts have cheered the folks in Detroit… and the urban poor in general. But I doubt it. If you go to the emergency room with a broken leg, it doesn’t boost your spirits much to find someone with two broken legs.
The article did manage to send a collective shudder through the hearts of Jefferson County’s citizenry. Imagine the dropped jaws of businessmen, educators, economic development professionals, elected officials, and community volunteers. People who have spent their lives teaching children to read, coaching softball, teaching Sunday School, providing access to capital for new homes and businesses, attracting new businesses. Who created art guilds, local museums, historical societies, and theater groups. Who organized seasonal festivals and fought for civil rights. Who started foundations, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society and childhood literacy, and who strived to get the most out of squeezed public budgets. And for what? According to the nation’s newspaper of record, all this striving had managed to create was an extraordinarily difficult place to live. What a bummer!
Now, it’s true you can’t buy a Starbuck’s in Jefferson County. And I acknowledge one can’t find a Gucci handbag or Christian Louboutin fashion accessories on Main Street in Louisville. But does that make our county a hard place to live?
Perhaps its time to take a look at what the NYT’s study does and does not demonstrate.
Here’s how I understand the study. For every county in the nation, “Upshot” found the statistics for 1) the unemployment rate, 2) the median family income, 3) the percentage of college degree-holders, 4) the percentage of people receiving disability payments, 5) life expectancy, and 6) the obesity rate. Then, each county was ranked from top to bottom on each of those 6 parameters. Then the rankings are simply averaged to calculate an overall ranking. No high-powered math or sophisticated modeling to confuse the reader. If you’re like me and barely passed statistics and calculus, you can still grasp this approach. And when Times finished its arithmetic, voila, the hardest places to live in America were revealed!
I would offer several thoughts about the data. First of all, since the 6 variables are not weighted, each parameter has equal influence on the final ranking. But does it seem logical that income and unemployment...which are unexceptionable measures of community wellbeing… should be treated the same as the number of folks on disability…arguably, a less determinative measure? Secondly, I sure would like to know how big the differences are between those counties at the bottom and those at the top. Do small changes in the raw numbers account for big changes in rank? One would want to know, for example, if all the counties in the lower half are separated by only fractional changes in the raw data. If so, what meaning is there to being in the bottom 10?
In addition, if one Googles “worst places to live in America,” literally hundreds of ranking of cities and communities appear. While the South always takes a whoopin’, to my knowledge Jefferson County has never been cited as exceptionally bad. Wouldn’t that suggest that there might be something anomalous about the instant study?
Finally, if one wanted to capture the hardness of life in a place, wouldn’t access to health care and crime rates be preeminent factors? If you are two hours’ drive from a hospital or you live in a virtual war zone in Chicago, wouldn’t those factors affect the community’s relative “hardness” much more so than the obesity rate?
Perhaps appropriate data on crime and health care weren’t readily available. But the data’s unavailability doesn’t blunt the objection that any study that doesn’t wrestle with such key issues can hardly be esteemed as holy writ.
This is not to deny Jefferson County has some dismal demographics. There are admittedly too few good paying jobs, too much unemployment, and too much poverty. But a good portion of this can be explained…as Tom Jordan, Executive Director of Jefferson County’s Development Authority, did in a recent News and Farmer interview. What’s happened to our county is happening all over the nation. Markets are being transformed by what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” painful but necessary changes brought about by globalization and technology. We have witnessed the collapse of established industries…like the textile industry…when those labor markets were exposed to the forces of globalization with the passage of NAFTA. But new markets are also being created by technology. Imerys has recently opened a new plant in the northern part of the county, a witness to the success of hydraulic fracturing.
We can’t stop the march of transformational market change. But it is imperative we adapt and take advantage of the changing landscape when new opportunities arise.
I would also argue some important factors elude measurement. An example comes to mind. Not long after the appearance of the NYT’s study, a prominent businessman, Vic Rachels, passed away unexpectedly at 51 from heart abnormalities. His funeral spoke eloquently about the life he led and the community he served. Vic was white, but there were a number of African Americans who attended the funeral. At one point in the service, all the attendees were invited to speak about the departed, a traditional practice in the rural South. The deceased’s next-door neighbor, a black man, spoke first. He recounted that he would often ask for Vic’s help if he discovered snakes in his yard, and Vic would quickly dispatch them with a hoe. Moreover, he spoke of the numerous times they had dined together, usually after Vic had helped him with his yard work by bringing over his chainsaw. Another African American spoke of the long career he had enjoyed working at Vic’s firm. He recollected that whenever he grew discouraged, Vic would appear on the factory floor, put his hand on his shoulder, and cheer him up. And finally, the black mayor of this small town recalled Vic’s support for his candidacy, and that all Vic had asked in return was for the prospective mayor “to do the right thing”.
Finally, it was time for Vic’s family to speak. Reflecting on the NYT’s article, Vic’s sister-in-law opined that though the Times had labeled Jefferson County a hard place to live, she certainly couldn’t tell it based on the family’s experience following Vic’s death. When news of his demise was abroad, friends, neighbors, relatives, and church members converged on the Rachels’ residence, bringing food, offers of help, tears, and shared sorrow.
Don’t get me wrong. Jefferson County is not an idyllic utopia of race relations and neighborly understanding. But it is a long way down the road to being a compassionate and tolerant community, attributes that make lives flourish.
Finally, I would point out another critical distinction about Jefferson County that won’t show up in statistics. The county’s leadership understands the challenges we face, and is determined not to give up. If you’re searching for what really makes a community hostile to life, it is the surrender of hope, it is despair about the future. In an interview referenced earlier, Tom Jordan, also said, “Apathy is probably the biggest killer of most rural and small town communities.” We know it is imperative to keep doing the best we can.
In fact, it looks like this determination won a recent victory. A year ago, Jefferson Hospital, our local medical facility, was on the brink of collapse. Hemorrhaging red ink, the Hospital’s very existence was threatened. Gratefully, through the cooperation of government and civic leaders, we found new financial resources to get the hospital through its troubled times. Next, we went looking for more management horsepower and, thankfully, found Pioneer Health Services. Since those decisions were made, there’s been a dramatic change in the Hospital’s trajectory. Expenses are down because of responsible cost control. Utilization is up as more people are discovering the new range of services provided by the Hospital. Revenues are increasing. New staff members are being recruited.
Make no mistake. These recent trends are not the result of random good fortune. Rather, they are the direct result of effective leadership. For now, it appears a priceless community asset has been saved.
Since The New York Times’ reporting and analysis have helped identify Jefferson County’s challenges, we want to invite you to be part of the solution. The Jefferson Hospital Foundation is now in the midst of its annual fundraising drive. Our local citizens and businesses have so far responded with their characteristic generosity. In fact, right now with a few days left to go in the campaign, we are have surpassed the previous year’s corporate sponsorship giving by 60 percent! We would ask you to consider a gift of $1,000 or more. By so doing, you can help put Jefferson Hospital on the path to sustainability. We’re willing to help ourselves. But it would be inspiring to have the support of one of the most respected institutions in America.
Jefferson Hospital Foundation