Can Kentucky Handle the Truth?

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier-Journal on December 5, 2016.

Terry_Brooks_KYAIt is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time: Kentucky’s own Tom Cruise plays attorney Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, and Jack Nicholson is Colonel Nathan Jessup in the 1992 film, A Few Good Men. You surely remember.

Kaffee is pushing the Colonel and pushing him hard. The irascible Nicholson shouts, “You want answers?” And the usually cool Cruise explodes back, “I think I’m entitled to them!” Nicholson asks again “You want answers?” To which Cruise replies, “I want the truth!” And then Nicholson launches the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!”

As we probe deeply into the data that animates the KIDS COUNT portrait of the Commonwealth’s children, I wonder: Can our state – both our citizens and our leaders in Frankfort – handle discomforting truths? And just as importantly, are we willing to act on those discomforting truths?

The discomforting truth is that the zip code in which Kentucky children live, the amount of money their family earns, and the color of their skin are pervasive and powerful influences on the childhood they will have and the future they can embrace.

We don’t like to hear that. Some valued colleagues have actually advised us to soften that message in this report, but we cannot and will not take the easy way out. You see, the evidence is too strong to ignore. We as a state have, in fact, come a long way in providing children

what they need to be successful, like ensuring kids have health insurance and changing the way we respond to youth who get in trouble. But in so many other ways, we are still not even close to a place where every child and his or her family has the opportunity to succeed.

We know that a toddler growing up in a rural southeastern Kentucky county will have different opportunities than a toddler growing up in the suburbs of Northern Kentucky, just like a young girl whose family is in deep poverty will have different life experiences than a young girl whose family is financially stable. And a Black teenager will experience high school differently than his or her White peer.

There’s not a citizen in Kentucky – and I include myself in that, for sure – who wants to hear those discomforting truths. But we must hear them, we must confront them, and we must act upon those discomforting truths.

Why focus on place, income, and race?

That is why we at Kentucky Youth Advocates decided to go beyond presenting only county-level data on children this year. While county-level data is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story about how kids are doing. The KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book examines how children fare based on place, income, and race and how pragmatic public policies can shape the future teachers, bankers, plumbers, farmers, doctors, and policymakers of Kentucky.

The data points presented in this book have stories and histories behind them. To truly understand why a White kid and a Black kid who both do the same thing receive different punishments in the education or juvenile justice system, we must dig deeper and look at the core of these issues. We must recognize how our society allows and often promotes treating groups differently, whether consciously or not.

How can Kentucky move forward?

There is no room for complacency when it comes to the future of Kentucky’s children. In fact, there are viable and common ground solutions in front of us. Throughout this book we offer several ways forward – solutions that policymakers and local communities can act upon to create pathways to opportunity for all families and children, especially those who have historically been blocked from reaching their full potential.

As a native Kentuckian, I am proud of so very many things in our state. The Derby, basketball, and our beautiful mountains. But we must learn about and never deny the inherent inequities that exist.

For kids in Kentucky, there are reasons why place, income, and race matter. Those reasons have been imbedded in us for years, and it is going to take time to change policies and attitudes to give every child a chance to thrive. We must learn together. We must be honest together. And we must move forward together. That includes me. It includes you. It includes communities, elected leaders, and youth themselves. It’s going to take all of us.

Abraham Lincoln, another famous Kentuckian, asserted, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” KIDS COUNT brings us the facts. Let’s face the facts and grow together to make Kentucky the best place in America to be young for all children no matter where they live, how much money their family earns, or the color of their skin. Our kids deserve no less.

Dr. Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Read the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book here.

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