Natural State numerology

Posted on January 31, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: |

It’s clear to even the most casual current-events observer that the times, they are a-changing.

At the onset of the potential for Richter-scale shifts in the works, it’s a good time to do a re-calculation of our own state’s position “by the numbers.”

I haven’t devoted a full column to state rankings in a banker’s dozen years, and the same disclaimer applies: Rankings are not an end-all to anything, but they do serve certain comparative purposes. At this juncture of profound political modulation and permutation, they can be both a measure against what was, and what we hope will be.

Unfortunately, America lost a tremendous national resource when budget cuts at the Census Bureau resulted in the discontinuation of publication of the U.S. Statistical Abstract. That doesn’t mean the same data aren’t available, just not as cogently compiled and handily accessible.

Let’s start with the money.

Now, as in 2003, Arkansas is No. 50 in median household income. We’re also 50th in personal per-capita income.

Poverty remains a plague within our borders, where our rate is bested by only three other states. And we’re among the worst states for how we tax our poorest citizens. Earners in the bottom quintile in Arkansas pay an effective sales- and excise-tax rate that is seven times higher than those in the top 1 percent.

In a small victory, on the Money-Rates list of best and worst places to make a living, Arkansas lands at a decent No. 37, thanks in part to a low cost-of-living index (we’re 48th in median house cost) and a third-best in the nation workplace-safety rating.

A perennial area of funding focus is public education. In 2003, our per-pupil expenditure ranking was 38th and our teacher-salary ranking was 44th. Both of those reflected healthy progress from previous years.

In the latest available data, Arkansas ranks 34th in per-student spending and 41st in average teacher salaries.

Those gains echo a traditional triumph: As a low-income state we overachieve when it comes to spending on schooling for our children. We should be proud to be ranked fourth in the nation for state expenditures on all education as a percentage of personal income.

In divorces per 1,000 population, Arkansas still has a rate four times the national average, but our ranking dropped to sixth among states, down from second in 2003.

The relative progress evaporated for teenage births, however. The rate at which Arkansas teens become mothers is the highest in the land, though a caveat is necessary: We had a commanding first-place ranking in the 18-19 age category. Among birth rates for teenage girls between 15 and 17, our rank dropped to sixth.

Continuing the undesirable “top 10” categories, America’s Health Rankings named us as No. 3 in percentage of adult smokers, with 24.9 percent of our population unable to kick the nasty habit.

Teen smoking rates are down nationally, but Arkansas still rates too high at 11th. And while statistical reporting on electronic cigarettes is still in its earliest stages, national data indicate that the percentage of middle- and high school students who use e-cigs is twice that of those who smoke traditional cigarettes.

The Natural State has the fifth-highest rate of obesity, a decidedly unnatural condition, in the nation. That, coupled with our high smoking rate, contributes to our also being listed as No. 5 for heart disease-related deaths.

We posted a slight gain over the past 13 years in the active physicians per 100,000 population category, moving from 44th to 42nd.

Turning to law and order, it’s not news to anyone that Arkansas’ violent crime rate remains way too high. For our small, rural state to still occupy a No. 9 position in the union emphasizes the need to put improvement in this area on any leadership priority list. Specifically, reducing our national prominence in the forcible rape category: Only four states have higher rates than we do.

It’s inexplicable that Arkansas residents routinely assault, rob, rape and murder each other at a rate more than double that of states like Kentucky, Virginia or Minnesota, and almost five times that of states like Vermont and Maine.

Some things have tended to stay about the same since my last report. In 2003, the life expectancy for Arkansas residents was lower than 41 other states. The latest figure of 76 years leaves us tied for 44th place.

From a voter involvement standpoint we’ve essentially been at a standstill. Four presidential elections ago, our electorate was ranked 45th.

The results from the 2016 race reflect a 52.6 percent turnout among the Arkansas voting-eligible population, which puts us at 44th in the country.

That’s well below most of the main battleground states. Wisconsin had the fourth-highest turnout of any state at 69.3 percent. Florida, Michigan and North Carolina all had rates above 64 percent.

While low rankings could be construed as capable of driving one to drink, food and travel website Thrillist ranked the “Booziest” states in America.

No worries here. Arkansas was dead last.

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