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How will state climb out of hole? by Coralie Koonce Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 18, 2023 at 3:14 a.m.

Some say "Thank God for Mississippi." And Louisiana and West Virginia. Their stats are bad too.

But why should our three million hardworking, law-abiding, neighborly people have so many unfortunate outcomes?

For instance, mothers and babies: Arkansas is the worst state in the country for maternal mortality rates. It's consistently first or second in teenage pregnancy rate. And 48th worst in infant mortality.

Premature deaths: We're the state with the most premature deaths from treatable causes. US News and World Report rates us 47th in healthcare.

Ambulance deserts: Next to Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, Arkansas has more of its population living more than 25 minutes from an ambulance station.

Crime: U.S. News and World Report ranks us at 49 in crime and correction. In 2021, Arkansas was second only to Louisiana in violent crime; now it's No. 1.

Arkansas has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. (Many simply await trial. Meanwhile, the boss hires somebody else and the marriage breaks up.) Thirteen percent of incarcerated people are over age 55, although this age group rarely commits crimes.

College: About one-third of Arkansans are college-educated. We're ranked 47th, above Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Voting: In the 2020 election our state trailed every other in both voter registration and turnout. Heroes fought for our right to vote--why do we not use it?

Renting: According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, nearly half of Arkansas renters spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent. Arkansas has uniquely failed to recognize the landlord's implied warranty of habitability (working plumbing and wiring, structural soundness, and similar basics). Thanks to tenant advocates, the warranty now applies to certain leases made after Nov. 1, 2021.

Income versus cost of living. The state's cost of living is about 13.5 percent below the national average. Yay! But Arkansas incomes are 21 percent below the national average. Groan. The greyhound can never catch the rabbit.

The Legislature recently saw a snowstorm of 890 new laws from the regular session, plus several more in the just-concluded special session. A few of them address the problems listed above. Others express particular ideologies.

The LEARNS Act, a wide-ranging education bill, was especially newsworthy. It restricts curriculum on several topics including "ideologies, such as critical race theory" (CRT).

CRT is a law school study, not taught in public schools, and deliberately turned into a bugaboo by a Republican propagandist named Christopher Rufo. If people want to forget that there ever was such a thing as slavery, or Jim Crow, or racial disparities, CRT is a handy meme to throw about.

In mid-August the Arkansas Department of Education advised six high schools to drop the AP African American history course they planned to offer this fall. But scrubbing history is itself ideology.

Also affecting teenagers, the Youth Hiring Act allows youngsters age 14 to 16 to work without a state work permit, taking us back before the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that outlawed most child labor.

The labor market is tight. Many of the migrants now crossing the border are teenagers. An investigation by Hannah Dreier of The New York Times found two-thirds of them are working full-time in a "shadow work force." By a system of subcontracting, large corporations can skirt labor protections for these low-wage workers.

How does this law help Arkansans?

Teenage pregnancy (ages 15-19) is often accompanied by low birth weights, higher infant mortality, and continuing poverty. Arkansas has many more teenage pregnancies than the national average.

To reduce teenage pregnancies, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families supports medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education and access to contraceptives. However, the sole kind of sex education recognized in Arkansas is abstinence-only.

To combat the state's overall high infant and maternal mortality rates, the state government encourages use of the state's 40 or so pregnancy resource centers. These typically offer free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, parenting classes and baby supplies. Working together as the Arkansas Pregnancy Network, these centers plan to launch a statewide telehealth hotline run by registered nurses.

This will surely help, but will it help enough?

Arkansas criminal courts are heading into problems as well. Act 659 will lock certain convicted criminals into serving 85 or 100 percent of their sentence, although lengthening prison sentences has not been shown to reduce crime. Now fewer cases will use plea deals to avoid trial. So ... more trials.

Arkansas already has the busiest criminal caseload in the country, relative to our size. There's a shortage of qualified public defenders, especially for "Y" felony cases, which require years of trial experience. Attorneys warn of even greater court backlogs to come.

I doubt the recent flurry of legislation will greatly help our most urgent problems. There's too much about battling ideologies.

For actual bootstrapping, we would carefully study our real problems and their proposed solutions. And then--for a change--we would vote!

Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville, and the author of "Little Handbook of Arguments."

Print Headline: Problems abound


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