KY's Future: Poverty or Prosperity?
Joe Brennan, D.S.W., M.Div.
Kentucky is a poor state. Poor in wealth, poor in health, poor in employment possibilities, poor in literacy, poor in opportunities. The statistics cannot be denied. Nationwide Kentucky is 47th in median income, 47th in pension liabilities, 48th in poverty, 21.9% of citizens receive disability, 14.9% qualify for food stamps, only West Virginia has a lower Gross Domestic Product, and only 20% of Kentuckians have a college degree. Tobacco has died, coal is barely alive, 20% of 50-60 year olds lack Skilled Based Technical Training. Kentucky is poor. It needs more revenue. Regressive taxes on the poor, who have no money, will not succeed, and taxing the wealthier will be opposed by both corporate and political influential interests. Kentucky needs more new revenues, but first it must have a leadership that will create and coordinate its potential and its opportunities. The following is but one attempt to outline of a skeleton, a framework requiring flesh and life.
It starts off with leadership. Issues such as Kentucky's ailing pension system have been passed by for future generations to solve. Budgets have been balanced with pension funds that have not been replenished. Teens continue to drop out of schools, while corporate investors wait in the wings ready to swallow up limited public funds through charter schools. Legislators promote support and invite low paying corporations into the state through "right to work" for less laws. Unions are demeaned while farm workers, documented or undocumented, are paid a misery as a salary. Salaries for tourist workers and fast food employees do not sustain a viable family. Leadership has been lacking, and may likely continue in the future. This plan may be naive, but hopefully it is the start of a dialogue.
Education It all starts with education. Not simply with money, that is needed, but with coordination. Instead of athletic competition, why not have a educational consortium between nearby universities in such area as research, agriculture, manufacturing, health studies, engineering, manufacturing, business, the creative arts, and tourism? Coordination must include the participation of the manufacturing sector with industrial and associate degree institutions. Do we really need competing schools of social work and nursing seeking the few higher paying urban positions? This is uncoordinated education without any state vision of occupation or skill needs. Occupation internships and apprentice programs could address current and future manufacturing needs.
Transportation Real Estate norms: location, location, location. If there is one thing other states can't take away from Kentucky is its location. There is little wonder why Kentucky has been a center for transportation - air, rail, road, water. It is situated near at least ten major cities. Coordinated efforts between all these facilities, (H2R - highway to rail), would facilitate not merely the transportation or warehousing of goods, but the swift and effective transportation of Kentucky made products. What is needed is to develop those new products or services that could benefit the region. Here too Kentucky is surrounded by seven neighboring states, do they always have to be seen as competitors and not as coordinators. Regional planning can present financial benefits for all, if parochial thinking is discarded.
Agriculture While other states are or are becoming water poor, this is not the case for Kentucky. It has an ample water table, hopefully not yet destroyed by mountain top mining. With the awareness of the benefits of fresh produce, farming combined with transportation capabilities opens up new potentials for growth and development. Agua-cultural production, fish farms for commercial needs and home fish tanks provides another area for potential growth. The presence and interaction of university research opens the capacity for additional productive coordination activities. We have not even mentioned the future of cannabis growing, now that we have drastically reduced growing tobacco. Agriculture should not be overlooked in an overall state economic development plan.
Manufacturing Kentucky manufactures a substantial segment of the automotive production. Transportation greatly assists this growth. But auto manufacturing becomes more and more dependent on Skilled Based Technology. Once more, coordinated educational programs and apprenticeship programs, can present an effective merger of education, training, and future good paying jobs. The same is true for the electronic industry, aerospace industries, chemical enterprises, health products, and the companies that provide materials and services to maintain these areas of production.
Tourism This is Kentucky's best kept secret. State and local recreational facilities have not reached their maximum for attracting tourists. Again location, transportation, and occupational training, are major elements for the investment of energies. Urban activities, sporting events, entertainment venues, museums, all benefit from their quality of presentation, as well as the state's location and transportation capabilities. Performing and visual arts, orchestral presentations, community extravaganzas, and convention programs, all present opportunities for future revenues, especially when the programming of these events are carefully coordinated.
Health Services Kentucky has made state of the art contributions to the field of medicine: transplants, surgery, and cancer research. For the benefit of its own population professional schools should prepare its students in such areas as diabetes treatment, elderly care, obesity, and disabilities. Social workers and psychologists are currently in demand and will increasingly be required to meet community needs. Professional schools instead of competing for student enrollment should coordinate their efforts to address a prepared statewide plan of action.
Tax Reform Finally, none of the above will be accomplished without a vision for effective taxation reform. Will companies leave because of increased taxation responsibilities, not if opportunities previously mentioned are realized. When tax incentives surpass revenues, something is wrong. Some companies will perhaps leave the moment such incentives disappear. Such conditions provide for short term, low income employment, but they do not provide Kentucky with long term economic development. Kentucky has put off facing realistic tax reform long enough. It has done little to address the social-economic realities presented in our opening paragraphs.
Conclusion Is this presentation totally naive? Does it merit discussion or debate? Then let the process begin. Time is running out. Will Kentucky give a new meaning to the term, " the welfare state"?