A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Income disparity: Unemployment rates are low, but NKY has some of lowest income rates in the state

First of two parts

By Hannah Carter
NKyTribune reporter

“I had my daughter at 16. Even though she changed my life for the better, it was a struggle. I lost friends, fought battles, was judged by many, but one thing I knew, I didn’t want to become another statistic.”

That is a part of Mia’s story.

The Northern Kentucky University student is a resident of the Brighton Center’s Northern Kentucky Scholar House. She is hoping for a brighter future despite juggling a myriad of obstacles, and she isn’t alone.

While unemployment rates in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties are among the lowest in the Commonwealth, according to a 2016 report by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, Kenton County has the most unequal income in the state. The top one percent makes 21.9 times more than everyone else. Campbell County does not fare much better, coming in at 9th in the rankings.

Why does this matter?

Many across Northern Kentucky are still left struggling. This comes in spite of news that the economy is booming and that jobs are going unfilled. According to recent census data, a large share of Kentuckians still struggle to afford basic necessities. Inflation-adjusted wages for the median Kentucky worker were actually lower in 2017 than they were in 2001.

“Income inequality is an issue we see and work through on a regular basis,” Children, Inc. Marketing Director Elizabeth Fricke said. “It’s regular for us to see parents who can pay full fees, as well as families who are struggling paycheck to paycheck and paying little to nothing.”

Florence Tandy

Covington, where Children, Inc. is based, has higher poverty rates than the rest of Kenton County, according to a 2017 demographic report by the Kentucky State Data Center and the University of Louisville’s Department of Urban and Public Affairs.

“We have three census tracts here in Covington where the number of household income is $20,368, $23,720, $20,700,” Covington Mayor Joseph Meyer.

According to the report, these findings are consistent with lower educational attainment and higher unemployment rates in the area, and the disparity has become even larger over time, with 27.2 percent of the city living in poverty in 2015, relative to the nation’s 10.5 percent poverty rate.

Nevertheless, while Covington holds the most economically disadvantaged areas, poverty rates have been climbing in other parts of the county over time.

Mayor Joe Meyer

The cities of Bromley and Ludlow currently have poverty rates in the 20 to 30 percent range, while parts of Elsmere, Independence, Park Hills, and Taylor Mill all have poverty rates between 10 and 20 percent.

“Income inequality has far more reaching issues than buying power. It’s about how long you’re going to live,” Dr. O’dell Moreno Owens, President and CEO of Interact for Health, said. “We now know your zip code is more important than your DNA and genetic code, in terms of life longevity.”

Just a few of the factors that Dr. Owens says play a role in the health of a neighborhood’s residents:

• The number of sidewalks
• Access to parks
• Quality of air
• Distance to medical facilities
• Proximity to grocery stores offering fresh produce

Florence Tandy, retired Executive Director of Northern Kentucky Community Action Council, says the trauma families face when their income is not secure adds to the problems associated with poverty.

Dr. O’Dell Owens

“Insecurity leads to people having their utilities shut off, their kids not being able to afford to go on field trips or buy new school clothes. Or they live in a neighborhood that’s unsafe,” Tandy said. “Those traumas, they’re cumulative. So if you have one really bad adverse childhood experience, you move past it. However, if you have one after another, the likelihood of overcoming it becomes smaller and smaller.”

“When kids grow up and all they know is a world of poverty, and they’re not really exposed to some of the other economic opportunities that exist and those sorts of things, it becomes self-defeating,” Mayor Meyer said.

Virginia Mason, an employment specialist trainee with the Senior Community Service Employment Program, experienced the effects of income inequality while working in the legal sector.

“My highest rate of pay was $14 an hour as a paralegal,” Mason said. “Now, I’m 63 and still don’t have a savings account.”

She said one of the hardest things for her, and for many others, is living within one’s means, especially when the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and it’s impossible to work enough to be able to pay the bills.

“The golden rule,” Mason said, “is to get an education because if you don’t have something to offer, you’re stuck.”

That’s the goal for NKU student Mia.

Kris Knochelmann

“I wanted to go to college and create a life for my daughter,” Mia said. “But working, taking care of a toddler, and attending classes just didn’t seem reasonable for me to accomplish. I received a full scholarship through Northern Kentucky University my senior year of high school and I didn’t think I was even going to be able to use it.”

Fortunately, the NKY Scholar House opened up a path for Mia. However, opportunities like this are not reaching all who need them.

“What we’ve done over time as a result of public policy is establish a large number of resources that resulted in the concentration of poverty in Covington in an environment where these people have effectively no access to the employment opportunities out there,” Mayor Meyer said. “So, for example, you say we have a great industrial park out there, and we do, but how do people get there?”

The Boone, Kenton, and Campbell Judges Executive brought up that same lack of access in this year’s Eggs ‘N Issues Northern KY Address, hosted by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“We have to talk and work together about how we’re going to move the workforce. If it’s not close enough to the job, we need to get them to the job,” said Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore.

Gary Moore

“A lot of things are phenomenal, but we have to be wary and realize that we’ve got opportunities to improve,” Kenton County Judge-Executive Kris Knochelmann said.

Advocacy is another key to improvement, according to both Dr. Owens and Tandy.

“We have to tell more of the stories,” Dr. Owens said. “People feel that.”

“We have to advocate for those who have fewer opportunities than we have experienced. This community has a wealth of opportunity, but some in this area have been left behind,” Tandy said. “It affects us, whether we know it or not, so we should feel responsibility for solving it.”

These stories on income inequality have been made possible by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at different solutions for income inequality here in the Northern Kentucky area.

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One Comment

  1. Rene Thompson says:

    May I suggest that one option to curb the inequality issue is for cities and counties to incentivize incoming businesses to pay living wages as opposed to minimum wages.

    If an individual working a full-time job cannot afford to support themselves without supports, then the tax-payers are actually subsidizing the businesses to underpay their workers. If businesses are instead rewarded for lifting their full-time employees out of poverty, instead of keeping them in poverty, then the community as a whole will win.

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