Community Corner

Policies, opportunity can't leave some behind

An abandoned home sits on a hillside near rural Marengo.
An abandoned home sits on a hillside near rural Marengo.

Elected officials basked in the glory of earning a best state designation from U.S. News last month, but two new reports show where Hawkeye State residents live may determine who reaps the most benefits.

The U.S. News Best States rankings, which gave Iowa top billing in February, uses 75 weighted metrics to complete its scores. The weighting helps explain how Iowa, which scored relatively low for fiscal stability and economy, rose to the top of the pack because of its higher scores in health care, opportunity and education and its top metric of infrastructure.

So, given those parameters, the state performs well, relative to how other states are performing. But drilling down deeper into the metrics shows that not all state residents share an equal experience.

The Economic Innovation Group has created an interactive map that identifies economic distress levels for every ZIP code in the U.S. Users can also look at measures by congressional district or city. It’s based on economic well-being metrics — percentage of residents with a high school diploma, housing vacancies, unemployment, poverty, median income, job availability changes from 2011 to 2015, and changes in local businesses during the same period.

This map shows an economically diverse state, with residents in the state’s two largest counties, Polk and Linn, doing very well. Counties nearest those population centers are doing well too. But the same is not true throughout the state.

Dallas County, located near Des Moines, boasts an economic distress score of less than 1, placing it extremely low on the scale. At the opposite end of the scale is Decatur County in south-central Iowa, which has a distress score of 81.2.

Another study that came out last week was the 2018 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a collaborative effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. It ranks counties throughout the nation based on a variety of well-being metrics such as access to affordable housing, education and physicians. These metrics are used, according to researchers, because where people live plays a role in how well they live, and for how long. And it isn’t just how many people in a county eat healthy or choose to smoke, but the social and economic differences that exist by location.

Not surprisingly, Decatur County ranks close to the bottom of these measures as well — as do Monona, Appanoose, Audubon and Lee counties.

Dallas County again ranks toward the top and is joined by Cedar, Grundy, Sioux and Winneshiek counties.

Researchers say their findings point to “health equity,” or the fact that not everyone has a fair chance to lead the healthiest life possible.

“More often the choices we make depend on the opportunities we have, such as quality education, access to healthy foods and living in safe, affordable housing in crime-free neighborhoods. These opportunities are not the same for everyone,” report authors note.

And what they’ve found is something I discuss in this column quite a bit: Health disparities emerge when some groups have more access to opportunities and resources over their lifetime and across generations.

Unfair lending practices, like those recently documented in Iowa City by the Center for Investigative Reporting, impact community health. Policing and prison sentencing impact community health, as does school funding. Transportation, housing, employment and so much more impacts personal and community health.

This is because opportunity isn’t a solitary endeavor. It’s the result of public policies and practices at all levels of government, some of which have sadly created barriers to resources needed for a long and healthy life.

It’s wonderful when Iowa is recognized for its accomplishments, and easy to understand why elected officials enjoy basking in such good news. But we can’t be a state that cherry picks, or is lulled into believing outpacing other states is good enough.

These other data sets are Iowa too, and they point to inequalities we have the power to remedy.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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