Missouri has the fourth worst congressional district in the country, as far as quality of life is concerned. The Fourth Worst. As in, only three other districts in the nation spend less on education, have fewer people with access to decent health care and have lower incomes. (The three worst are in Kentucky, Texas, and California.)
I spoke last week to Sarah Burd-Sharps, one of the authors of “The Measure of America”, a new publication which offered that interesting,depressing little tidbit about Congressional District 8 in Southeastern Missouri. The book, which will come out annually, analyzes what official U.S. government data tells us about the quality of life of ordinary Americans. I asked her what she’d have to say if she had the ear of the next president or the next governor of Missouri. She started by noting the disparity between life in Congressional District 2 (West St. Louis County and St. Charles County) and District 8 (Jo Ann Emerson’s bailiwick).
CD 2, Todd Akin’s district, the wealthiest district in Missouri, ranks twice as high as Emerson’s district. To give you some context, the wealthiest district in the country is New York’s Congressional District 14 on the upper east side of Manhattan. It’s Human Development Index (HDI) is 8.17. The worst district in the country, Congressional District 20 in California, covers parts of Fresno and all of Kings County. It has an HD index of 2.64.
CD 2 has an HD index of 6.19, while CD 8 has an index of 3.15. Just numbers, meaningless numbers is all those are. Then let me give you a more concrete notion of what they mean. People in CD 2 live four years longer on average than those in CD 8. Second Congressional residents have only a third the high school dropout rate of Eighth District residents. Those in CD 2 are four times as likely to have a college degree, and they earn, on average $15,000 more a year (median income in CD 2: $34,000; in CD 8: less than $20,000).
So what would Burd-Sharps tell Governor Nixon? Essentially, just that attention must be paid to these disparities. She talked about the consequences, for example, of inadequate health care:
Virtually every other country in the world has figured out a way to provide health care for practically all of their citizens more cheaply and more effectively than we have. We’re a resourceful nation. We’re spending the money already. It’s not that complicated. We can figure it out as well. And there’s no time for delay.
What our research showed is that just as with obesity and diabetes, uninsurance is an early death sentence. Not having insurance means you die sooner. Simple as that. The way things are going now, we have groups that are living extremely long and healthy lives and we have other groups, such as African-Americans, that are living on average the lifespan of an average American in the 1970s.
Beyond seeing all Americans with access to health care, Burd-Sharps would plead with President Obama for more funds for public health programs. Currently the lion’s share of our spending, 95 percent, goes to advanced treatments and research. But most of the progress that has been made in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been the result of public health campaigns, such as getting kids to fasten their seat belts and putting warnings on cigarette packages.
In the arena of education, Burd-Sharps bemoans first the way Americans expect their educational system to handle all the problems that children bring to school with them. If they arrive hungry or if they come from a situation that is violent or abusive, we can’t expect teachers to solve those problems. Because poorer districts face more such problems, they need more funds if they’re to make any headway in teaching those kids. Yet their funds are less because the U.S. is one of the only countries that bases its educational spending on property taxes.
Burd-Sharps notes, also, the disparity in pre-school education. Coming back to districts eight and two, she points out that only half of the three and four year olders in district eight are in nurturing, enriching environments, whereas 82 percent of the young ones in district two are. This is an age of two-working-parent and single parent families. Good pre-school isn’t an option; in most cases, it’s a necessity.
Burd-Sharps would tell our next president, if she had the chance, that in 1990, the U.S. was number two in the world as far as the quality of life of its average citizens. Now we’re number twelve. That doesn’t mean we’ve made no progress in the last 18 years; it does mean, though, that other countries have made more progress.
For example, we’re one of only four countries (out of 175 the authors surveyed) with no federally mandated paid maternity leave. The other three are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Liberia. In the same vein, she notes that other countries have federally mandated paid sick leave, paid vacation, and time off for breast feeding.
I suppose Todd Akin would dismiss Sarah Burd-Sharps as some liberal Commie wench. He’d use more PC language than that, but you’d get his drift. But he’d be wrong. She is a scientist who expressed no political leanings to me. If she could be said to be a liberal, it’s only because, as Stephen Colbert pointed out, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Update: If you’d like to see data such as an HD index by gender, by race and ethnicity, or by gender, race and ethnicity, this book is chock full of charts and graphs that examine multiple facets of our quality of life. You can order a copy here.