It’s no longer news that when it comes to its residents’ health, Wyandotte County ranks near the bottom of Kansas counties and Johnson County ranks at the top.
Nor is it news that the health disparities between the two adjoining counties have less to do with individual behaviors than with socioeconomic factors like income levels, jobs, education and long-standing practices such as redlining and predatory lending that discriminate against people of color.
What may come as a bit of a surprise is that housing costs – and the financial burden they impose – factor pretty heavily into the mix as well.
It turns out that nearly one in six Wyandotte County households spend more than half their income on housing, compared with just one in 11 Johnson County households. In Kansas as a whole, about one in 10 households spend more than half their income on housing costs.
The figures come courtesy of the latest County Health Rankings report released Tuesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The report looks at more than 30 measures to assess the overall health of nearly every county in the country.
The 2019 report ranks Wyandotte County 99th out of 102 counties in Kansas (three counties weren’t ranked) for health outcomes, which are based on an equal weighting of length and quality of life. Johnson County was ranked first. The rankings for the two counties remain unchanged from last year.
“This isn’t unexpected,” says Jerry Jones, executive director of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County. “What we’re talking about as far as changing these numbers is a generational lift. We understand that we’re talking several years of committed, collaborative work in order to see a real change in our ranking. So while a lot of the numbers are disappointing, they certainly are not unexpected or surprising.”
This year’s report, which focuses on people’s homes, notes that when too much of a paycheck goes toward paying the mortgage or rent, it’s that much harder to pay for a doctor, purchase medicine, buy healthy food, cover utilities, get reliable transportation to work or school, or meet other basic needs.
“I think housing affordability – and we’re starting to see this on the national level – is one of the primary health equity issues,” Jones says. “It makes it more difficult to access all of the other things that folks need.”
Combine housing cost burdens with the stress of having to make ends meet, especially if the household is headed by a single parent working multiple jobs, “and there are a lot of things that begin to snowball on top of each other,” Jones says.
Add atop that Wyandotte County’s aging housing stock and the environmental issues that go with it, and housing emerges as a major health indicator.
“We can say that there are a lot of individuals living in Wyandotte County who are paying significant amounts of their income toward rent, and they may actually be living in housing that’s not environmentally safe for them,” Jones says. “And that poses a challenge as well, because we know what exposure to lead and mold does to the development of the brains of young children, particularly between the ages of zero to three years old.”
The report isn’t all bad news for Wyandotte County. It shows improvement in a variety of measures, including premature deaths, alcohol-impaired driving deaths, the uninsured rate, preventable hospital stays, mammography screenings and unemployment. On the other hand, the county’s child poverty rate is now as high as 25 percent, the ratio of primary care physicians to residents has fallen, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, and the adult obesity rate is trending upward.
In 2009, the county was ranked the worst for health in Kansas, so the county has made incremental progress. Over the last decade, Healthy Communities Wyandotte, an umbrella group formed in response to the 2009 rankings, has launched a variety of health initiatives, including a push to make the county’s streets more safe and walkable, getting more residents covered by health insurance, reducing tobacco use and addressing “food desert” issues.
In a brochure touting its work, the coalition acknowledges that “the issues impacting our community will take a long time to change, which is why we no longer focus on how well we are doing compared with other counties.”
“What matters,” the brochure states, “is how far our community has come from where we used to be.”
Or as Jones puts it, “It’s going to take a herculean lift. And I don’t mean to say it’s impossible. I’m saying it will take a renewed and constant level of commitment from all stakeholders – from social service providers, health providers, educators, social service agencies – from all of us that are invested in one form or fashion in this community.”
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.