Wednesday, October 3, 2018

U.S. News and World Report ranks Martin County nation's worst performing white-majority county in health outcomes

Gary Ball, editor of the weekly Mountain Citizen, has been reporting on water issues in Martin County for nearly two decades, prompting the state to open the first investigation into the local water district. (Photo: Rich-Joseph Facun for NPR)
U.S. News and World Report ranks Martin County in Eastern Kentucky "as the worst-performing white-majority county in the nation, in a special report released Tuesday that analyzes links between race, geography and health outcomes," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Screenshot of interactive U.S. News and World Report map, showing
data for each Kentucky county. Click here to access the actual map.
The national analysis found that living in a predominantly white county was a strong predictor of communities' overall health and well-being, but that wasn't the case in Martin County, which has been hammered with a two-decades old water crisis, high poverty rates, poor health outcomes and the national opioid epidemic, according to the report. Wright has written extensively about the county's struggles to provide clean water to its residents. So has the Mountain Citizen, the county's weekly newspaper, and NPR aired an eight-minute story Wednesday.

The nationwide analysis looks across 10 factors that drive health outcomes, including such things as job availability, prevalence of diseases, smoking, obesity, housing costs, and air and water quality.

Martin County scored just 10.5 out of a possible 100 points, "faring especially weak in categories that measure economic opportunity," Wright reports. Kentucky's average score was 42.2.

Martin County also scored poorly on health indicators like smoking rates (29 percent), obesity prevalence (39.1 percent), deaths of despair (72.2 per 100,000) and overall life expectancy (72.6 years).

Martin County has been poor for a long time, and was the scene President Lyndon B. Johnson chose for rolling out the War on Poverty in 1964. Since then, Wright reports, the county’s poverty rate has dropped nearly in half, but still remains above 30 percent, which is much higher than the national average. Coal jobs in the county dropped 63 percent between 2011 and 2015, forcing many to move away. The county’s population dropped 11 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to U.S. News.

The U.S. News analysis highlighted one great strength in the community, "measurable improvements in college- and career-readiness among the county’s high school students," Wright reports.

The report found that in 2009, just seven students at the county high school were deemed ready for college, and just 19 percent were deemed ready for a career. By 2016, though, the school had earned a "distinguished" classification and nearly 60 percent of students there earned some college credit before graduating, and more than 70 percent were deemed college ready. Both those marks are higher than the statewide average.

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