The term "Third World" immediately evokes images of grinding poverty, high unemployment and lack of educational and health-care resources. We apply the term to nations such as Somalia, Bangladesh, Haiti and Liberia. Some have never had stable governments. Others represent failed states. In Third World countries, hope is foreclosed as residents struggle to survive each day.
We can find pockets of Third World circumstances throughout our country and, indeed, in our region. Many Tennesseans cope daily with dire conditions that block prospects for them and their children. Chronic poverty, lack of jobs, poor health and lagging education are the norm for people whose plight is too often relegated to sterile tables of statistics.
Unemployment: In August, 9.8 percent of Tennessee residents were unemployed versus a national rate of 9.1 percent. Neither figure includes many chronically unemployed persons who have simply given up their job searches. Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and Michigan have unemployment rates above 10 percent. California and Nevada exceed 12 percent. Jobless rates are higher in small towns and rural areas.
Poverty: Not surprisingly, poverty rates parallel those of joblessness. At the beginning of 2010, 17.2 percent of Tennesseans lived below the federal poverty level, compared to 15.1 percent nationally. Poverty levels were highest in Southeastern states, West Virginia, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Mississippi led the nation with 21.8 percent. In each state, the numbers of children living in poverty exceeded that of adults.
Tennessee's counties show wide variances in poverty levels, ranging from 42.5 percent in Lake County (in the state's extreme northwest corner) to rates above 20 percent in Scott, Rhea, Grundy and Bledsoe Counties. Hamilton County includes 18.1 percent of its population, 24.4 percent of its children, below the federal poverty level.
Health status: This is linked to availability of health insurance. Despite a robust Medicaid program, 15 percent of Tennesseans in 2009 had no health insurance. The national rate was 17 percent. Other states showing higher rates included Texas (26 percent), Georgia (19 percent) and Mississippi (18 percent). Incidences of such chronic illnesses as diabetes, emphysema, heart disease and extreme obesity were higher in underinsured states.
Education: Vigorous educational reform has raised Tennessee's woeful high school graduation rates, but significant disparities exist between urban and rural areas: 79 versus 68 percent. Fifty-eight percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students complete high school.
Violence: Recent data released by the FBI place Tennessee at the top of states in gun violence. Violent crimes occur most frequently in poor neighborhoods.
These figures take on sad, human dimensions with visits to areas hardest hit by linked hardships. Many small towns are lifeless with boarded storefronts and few people afoot. Once active auto dealerships are shuttered. Regional discount stores are the only centers of retail activity. Schools are rundown. Public facilities lack maintenance. Dental health is poor. Morbid obesity reflects poor nutrition. Poor grammar reflects limited education.
Hamilton and other urban counties are blessed with a variety of charitable organizations that provide food, shelter, havens from violence, economic counseling and health care for many disadvantaged residents. Counties that lack urban centers limp along without these resources.
What if our statewide elected officials along with legislators and elected leaders from affected districts converted campaign buses to travel to the Third Worlds of our state? The best problem solvers could accompany them. They could listen with ear and soul to people just scraping by. So informed, they could craft solutions. All options, freed of partisan ideology, would be on the table. Tax structures would be examined. Mobile medical and dental clinics might be considered. Alternatives to bleak, dysfunctional schools could be designed. Joblessness would be confronted with urgency.
There are no easy solutions to these complex problems. They must be identified, analyzed and addressed in a forthright, nonpartisan manner. Opportunities cannot be equalized until our Third Worlds are eliminated.
Email Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.