Republican officeholders often reach into the old tool shed for a branding iron that burns a “Too liberal for Kentucky” slogan on the hide of his or her opponent.
But what if we explored where decades of Kentucky conservatism — by both Democrats and Republicans — has taken us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. News and World Report data?
Kentuckians love a No. 1 ranking in basketball, but are you proud of living in the state that is No. 1 in adults and children with permanent tooth loss? We’re fat, too, the fourth-fattest state. In fact, Kentucky ranks near the top of states with citizens in ill health.
We’re 16th in infant mortality. We’re way better, I mean worse, when it comes to adult mortality, ranking next to last in life expectancy. Our suicide rate, number of overdose deaths, health-care quality and number of uninsured are Top 10 awful. We smoke the most and die of a myriad of diseases that each ranks us in the Top 10.
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One primary cause for our predicament is our lack of education. Nearly half of the state’s residents have never graduated from a high school and only 32 percent have a college degree. That puts us 16th on the list of least-educated states. It’s a cold, hard fact that the higher-educated one is the more likely she is to identify as a liberal.
Another nettlesome fact is that the more conservative you are, the less likely you are to support a tax increase, even one directed at a worthy goal such as education. Tax is a dirty word to most Kentuckians. And yet, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, someone most Kentuckians couldn’t name on a history exam, said taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
And that brings us to another Republican branding iron. It reads, “I will raise your taxes.”
It’s true we pay some of the highest rates — especially our lower-and-middle-wage earners. That’s because while conservatives were slashing taxes on businesses and the wealthy, they were raising your taxes and mine.
Meanwhile, Kentucky has the third-most unfavorable long-term economic stability ranking of all the state governments. We’re bottom 10 in pension funding, education funding, health care and infrastructure spending. If your government doesn’t tax the highest earners fairly, your government can’t adequately fund critical functions of government.
We’re third from the bottom in terms of employment; fifth worst in job growth; fifth worst in economic opportunity; fifth worst in household income; fifth worst in food security (knowing where the next meal is coming from); and we have the third highest poverty rate.
If our economy is lousy at a time the national economy is humming, what happens when the next recession hits? Progress happens only when someone rises up to end racial segregation, push educational reform or expand Medicaid. We remember them and forget the others.
It’s no statistical anomaly that states in which a preponderance of the citizenry identify as liberal and who believe in Justice Holmes’s axiom rank favorably on just about every quality-of -life measure.
That’s why states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Maine, Oregon, Washington and California are at or near the top, in a good way, of every category mentioned above. And it’s why Kentucky can do better.
Henry Riekert of Jessamine County is a former community columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.