In his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, Governor Steve Beshear made the following statement:
“When you look at our progress and compare us with our neighbors, those critics who are always saying we need to be more like Tennessee or Indiana should realize that Tennessee, Indiana and the rest of our neighbors are working hard to be more like Kentucky!”
Comparing Kentucky to its seven neighbors -- Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia -- is a useful exercise. Governor Beshear mentioned just a few rankings, but here are several others.
Last year, Politico collected “14 different state rankings from reputable sources like the Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FBI” on “important factors such as high school graduation rates, per capita income, life expectancy and crime rate” and averaged them to come up with an overall ranking of state strength. Kentucky was 44th, ahead of only Tennessee among its neighbors.
The financial website WalletHub recently “analyzed the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three key metrics, including income, GDP per capita and tax dollars per capita.” Kentucky ranked 46th overall and 47th in income, exceeding only West Virginia among the border seven.
In September, Business Insider ranked Kentucky's economy 44th in the U. S. Among neighboring states, only West Virginia's ranked lower. In November, Forbes ranked Kentucky as the 33rd best state for business. Of our border states only West Virginia and Illinois ranked lower.
The Tax Foundation, a non-partisan research think tank, recently ranked Kentucky's business tax climate in the bottom half of the states, and below those of adjacent states Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
WalletHub ranked Kentucky 30th last year for average annual state and local taxes. Of surrounding states, only Illinois and Ohio had higher taxes and a lower ranking.
CNBC's 2014 ranking of the top states for business based on 56 measures of competitiveness put Kentucky 39th. West Virginia was the only state bordering Kentucky to place lower. Kentucky also came in 39th in the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual economic competitiveness study. Only Illinois was worse among neighboring states.
Kentucky's seasonally adjusted November 2014 unemployment rate of 6.0 percent was better than that of Tennessee (6.8), West Virginia (6.3), and Illinois (6.4), but worse than that of Indiana (5.7), Missouri (5.6), Virginia (5.0), and Ohio (5.0).
Kentucky's seasonally adjusted labor force participation rate of 60.2, which represents the proportion of the civilian non-institutional population that is in the labor force, surpassed only Tennessee (58.5) and West Virginia (53.2) among neighboring states.
Kentucky's state pensions are underfunded by over $30 billion. The funding ratio is worse than all border states but Illinois, and is third-worst in the nation according to recent research by the non-partisan State Budget Solutions organization.
The financial website 24/7 Wall Street recently ranked Kentucky as America's sixth-least-educated state, ahead of only West Virginia among its neighbors. The analysis noted that only 22.6 percent of Kentuckians hold a bachelor's degree or higher, that the state's median household income is the fifth lowest nationally, and that the 18.8 percent of Kentuckians below the poverty level is the sixth highest.
In its 2014 comparison of education, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Kentucky 30th. The same group put Kentucky 35 for overall child well-being. Tennessee and West Virginia were the only border states below Kentucky in these measures.
WalletHub rated Kentucky 41st in education last year “based on 12 factors, including student dropout rate, pupil/teacher ratio, test scores, rates of bullying and school safety measures.” Only West Virginia was lower among the seven neighboring states.
Among neighboring states, Kentucky's 33.2 adult obesity rate betters only Tennessee and West Virginia. Of the seven, only Tennessee has a higher childhood obesity rate than Kentucky.
Kentucky's incidence rate of all cancers is highest among its border states. Kentucky leads not only its neighborhood, but the nation, in the both the percentage of population who smoke and who suffer from heart disease.
Beshear said, “You hear a lot of people – even within this state – running Kentucky down.” But honestly facing the facts about Kentucky's condition is not “running Kentucky down.” It is waking Kentucky up to the desperate need to change course instead of continuing the same governing philosophy and policies that put us at the wrong end of so many rankings.
As one wise Kentucky leader has said about college rankings, any single one should be taken with a grain of salt, but they do matter. “Considered collectively … they have substance.”
Kentucky is having some successes that our surrounding states may want to emulate, but West Virginia is the only one of them that might actually want to be more like us in most measures. To suggest otherwise, as Beshear did, is silly talk.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.