Wide gaps in well-being across the U.S.

The Measure of America map.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Congratulations! You made a little more money last month. Government figures out today show incomes rose half a percent in October. Something to give thanks for on the eve of Turkey Day. Now, that figure is an aggregate one of course, an entire country's income rolled up into one. It might not say much about how things are going where you live. So to gauge that, a new report on well-being looks at congressional districts across America. And it finds gaps wide and deep even within a single state.

Correspondent David Brancaccio reports regularly on our show about how we can make the global economy work better for more people. We call the series Economy 4.0. Today, David has a story from rich and poor Virginia.


Sound of freight train horn

David Brancaccio: The Ninth Congressional District in Virginia. Appalachia, as south and west as you can get in Virginia without crossing into Tennessee or Kentucky.

Debbie Jessee: This is my hometown. This store we're in front of right now used to be a grocery store. And then after it went out of business...

Debbie Jessee, a retired history teacher, gives a driving tour of the tiny town of Dryden.

Jessee: ... And they put a flea market in here and even the flea market's dried up now.

Debbie's not even sure you can get a slice of pizza in town. In Dryden, there's hardly a business left, with coal mining hiring fewer and the tobacco industry in decline.

Jessee: We've got a tag that used to go on our license that said "Dryden, the Hub of Industry."

Brancaccio: Doesn't look like that now, I'm sorry to say.

Jessee: That, unfortunately, that's correct.

Switch now to the same state's Eighth Congressional District, as north as you can go in Virginia without crossing into Washington, D.C.

Tom Brooke: Now this place was a donut shop, then it was a Mexican restaurant, now it's a fancy restaurant.

Tom Brooke, a lawyer, grew up in this vastly different part of Virginia, a suburb called Vienna.

Brooke: You can see over here on the left that even in this sort of Class C strip mall everything's open. There isn't an empty storefront there that I can see. No, I can't see a single one.

This contrast is documented by a group called the American Human Development Project. It's been looking at income, longevity, and education in congressional districts across the U.S. as part of its new assessment of well-being called "The Measure of America." The group calculates that in terms of well-being people in the Ninth District of southwest Virginia are 20 years behind the national average. The richer, healthier, more educated Northerners are where the country will be decades from now. Crossing Virginia is like taking a time machine from the past to the future.

Sarah Burd-Sharps is the report's co-author.

Sarah Burd-Sharps: We're trying to get people to recognize that having groups falling badly behind in this country is not good for those groups themselves, but it's also really bad for our competitiveness and for our future.

In Virginia, a child born today in the poor district is likely to die eight years before a child born in the richer district. In the north, typical household income is more than double, $51,000 compared to $21,000 a year.

Jessee: We've gotten ourselves into a cycle of fatalism, I guess. This is the way it's been. This is the way it's gonna be, it's not gonna change.

While home ownership rates and unemployment rates are equivalent Southwest and north, what's not is education. Schools there struggle with funding and human resources.

Jessee: We used to have a physics teacher at Lee High. She is now the assistant principle there, so we've not offered physics for about three years now.

Brancaccio: So how many engineers you going to get coming out of this county if you don't teach physics?

Jessee: Uh, well it may be a little bit more challenge for them to go to college.

The school is now offering some students physics via the Internet. In Debbie's congressional district, just 17 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. In the north, it's 59 percent, which also connects to the types of jobs people can have.

Brooke: There's two lawyers in the next house. I think they're both lawyers. Lawyer across the street. You can swing a dead cat and find a lawyer in this neighborhood.

Tom, our tour guide in northern Virginia, came from a family where money was tight and public education fully embraced. Tom went to a good local high school with amenities such as a vigorous Model United Nations program that helped get him into Virginia's elite college of William and Mary, first for a BA then a law degree.

Again, Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-author of the Measure of America report.

Sarah Burd-Sharps: We found that adults with a master's or professional degree in the top earning district are four and a half times higher than in the lower district. So that enables residents of that high district to get higher skills, higher paid employment. And that is a huge contributing factor to the earnings disparity.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a fellow with the Hudson Institute takes a more free-market approach. She says quality schools are a crucial way to help people get the opportunities they deserve.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth: We should be concerned about mobility through the system. But, equality should not be one of our social goals at all. What we should do is make sure people have the opportunities to live the lives that they want.

Still, a politically diverse range of groups is expected to use the new well-being data as fodder for policy. For instance, Catholic Charities USA is using the new human development indicators to guide its campaign to reduce poverty in America by half within 10 years.

In Dryden, Va., I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

Vigeland: Find out where your congressional district ranks in income, education, and health. A link to that and more at David's Economy 4.0 blog.

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