Early in my adult life I got up close and personal with Kentucky during Army basic training at Fort Knox. For sure the eight weeks of hell I endured there left an impression on me but what stayed more in my memory were the Kentuckians who trained alongside me and who shared my barracks.
It all started at the reception center where we were being issued uniforms and gear. There I met a dozen or so young men — boys really – who were National Guard trainees from the mountains in the eastern part of the state. All were poorly educated and several could neither read nor write. Most had difficulty coping with military discipline and it occurred to me that their opportunities for a decent life were limited. I was shocked and saddened by their plight.
Over the years the Bluegrass State didn’t appear much on my radar screen until several years ago when I started writing a column for a local newspaper. My research soon focused on the dire economic status of the nation’s poorest states, most of which were controlled by Republicans. It puzzled me; why would they vote for the anti-union GOP that favors the wealthy, refuses to raise the minimum wage and opposes government programs for needy people? Kentucky stood out as the obvious poster child for these states.
Kentucky is 87 percent white with a small black population and an insignificant number of Latinos. Almost half of its residents are evangelical Christians, second highest percentage in the nation. Walmart is its largest single employer. And the coal industry, which gets lots of media attention, employs less than 6,300 workers.
By almost every measure, many Kentucky residents still struggle to be happy, healthy and prosperous — and the recent statistics dramatically indicate why:
- Around eight percent are on disability, the fourth highest in the nation.
- Thirty-three percent have preexisting health conditions, tied for third highest.
- Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) cover almost 30 percent of Kentucky’s residents and 62 percent of its children.
- Kentucky is among the 10 poorest states with a median income of under $47,000.
- Food stamps help feed 655,000 of its residents, one out of every seven.
- It is number two of the states most dependent on federal government assistance.
- Drug overdoses took 1,565 Kentucky lives in 2017, a 40 percent increase over five years.
In 2013, then-Democratic Governor Steven L. Beshear courageously tried to help his suffering constituents. He established the state’s very successful Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange called Kynect. And he expanded Medicaid in 2014, providing health care insurance to more than 500,000 additional Kentuckians. But as they became more dependent on federal support, Kentucky voters inexplicably tacked harder to the right.
In 2014 they elected Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin as governor, a candidate who promised to abolish Kynect and cancel Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. He wanted to eliminate Obamacare, even though Kentucky would be the third state most damaged by its repeal. Bevin managed to shutdown Kynect. But when Medicaid expansion proved too popular for him to ax, he received federal permission as the first state to impose strict work requirements on Medicaid recipients. Bevin threatens to dismantle the Medicaid expansion if the courts block this plan.
To make matters worse, Kentucky’s legislature recently passed a typical GOP flat-rate income tax of five percent for everyone. This law nearly doubled the cigarette tax and imposed sales taxes on 17 additional services, including auto repair, pet care and recreational activities. As a result, small companies and Kentucky residents with average incomes will face tax increases and higher earners will get tax cuts.
I feel sorry for today’s Kentuckians, just like I did for those in my basic training unit. But they keep voting for Republicans like Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, politicians who promote policies that will hurt Kentucky families. There’s not much I can do to help people who vote against their self-interest; so why should I give them a second thought?
The problem is, Kentucky and similar needy states like Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana — to name a few — elect Republicans to Congress who control the legislative agenda. These four are among 14 GOP-led states that have a combined population less than California’s almost 40 million. But they have 28 members in the Senate – including Senate Majority Leader McConnell. Consequently, wealthier, urban states are being dominated by Senators from poorer, rural states.
To control the U.S. House, GOP state legislatures have gerrymandered congressional districts to favor Republican candidates. And they’ve enacted election laws that make it harder for typical Democrats to cast ballots. This results in electing Republicans whose billionaire financial supporters advocate conservative policies that will make these states even poorer.
I truly believe that the United States does much better when all Americans are doing better. But working people — whose wages are basically stagnant — received little financial help from the Republicans’ tax cut while the wealthy revel in its benefits. To me, that’s not a sustainable economic situation for Kentucky or any other state.
So yes, I have good reason to care about Kentucky and not just because I’m concerned about its struggling citizens. Kentucky is emblematic of the Republican states whose right-wing politicians want to impose their failing ideology on the entire nation.
All voters should keep Kentucky in mind come November.