WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missouri is on the wrong end of misery index

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

We smoke too much. We eat too much. And we're not very hopeful about our futures.

Based on the U.S. Well-Being Index, that's how Missourians viewed their lives in 2011. The national survey, a cooperative effort between the Gallup polling company and Healthways, a private health care firm, ranks states, cities and congressional districts on a variety of health care and lifestyle measurements.

Missouri is, well, miserable, according to the study, ranking better than only seven other states. Illinois fared much better, ranking 32nd in the nation. That leaves plenty of room for improvement, but not a single one of Illinois' statewide categories finished in the bottom quintile, where several in Missouri did.

The Well-Being Index is compiled based on the real-life feelings of our neighbors.

Nearly every day, the index calls 1,000 people nationwide and asks a series of questions intended to rank emotional and physical health, work environments, access to health care and basic services, and whether individuals believe they generally are thriving or suffering in life.

Missouri ranked 48th in both the "life evaluation" and "healthy behavior" categories. No surprises there.

Poverty is rampant in Missouri, both in its urban areas and in many of its rural outposts. The 8th Congressional District in southeast Missouri has consistently ranked among the poorest in the nation. On the Well-Being Index, it ranked 429 out of 436 in the country. The combination of the ongoing recession and Mississippi River flooding made life tough in that part of the state last year.

But until Missouri begins taking the welfare of its residents seriously, in terms of both their physical and economic health, misery is likely to be the rule, not the exception.

As long as Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation, it will be a dumping ground for low-cost tobacco products. The various negative health outcomes that come with smoking will pull the entire state down with it.

As long as Missouri politicians believe in giving a free hand to the payday-loan predators, the state's poorest residents will be chum for the sharks.

As long as Missouri politicians believe the myth that being a low-tax, low-service state will pull the Show-Me State out of its steep economic decline, its residents and workers will suffer the consequences of misguided policy decisions.

Smart business executives care about things like the Well-Being Index because they want well-adjusted employees who want to live where they locate. They care about poor rankings in school funding, which is becoming a Missouri specialty. They care about access to quality health care, because a healthy staff keeps costs down and productivity up.

So when they see that Missouri also ranks 40th in the United Health Foundation ranking of healthy states (all the way down from 24th in 1990), they see an uninviting trend line.

Missouri borders more states than any other in the nation. Only Arkansas ranks lower on the Well-Being Index. Is that really where Missouri wants to be?

Missouri has much to offer: Big, diverse cities, beautiful rural landscapes, nationally important research universities and much more. But as long as its public policies keep so many of its residents in poor health, poverty or prison, the path to prosperity will be blocked.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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