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Morning Sun
  • EDITORIAL: Economic Summit a mix of results

  • There’s no doubt that something must be done for southeast Kansas to improve the economy. The simple truth is no region in Kansas has unemployment rates as high, health indicators as low, or poverty rates as high as southeast Kansas.

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  • There’s no doubt that something must be done for southeast Kansas to improve the economy. The simple truth is no region in Kansas has unemployment rates as high, health indicators as low, or poverty rates as high as southeast Kansas.
    Thursday’s Economic Summit in Iola was a step in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean that everything said at the summit was perfect.
    One of the key goals of the summit was to come up with a list of the top issues facing the region. The 250+ participants at the summit were broken into 10 groups, and each group was tasked with coming up with identifying the top 3 issues from a pre-determined list of 10 “key issues” facing the region.
    These “key issues” were the obstacles to economic success, and included Readiness to Work, Workforce Development, Localism instead of Regionalism, Downtown Pride and Entertainment, Brain Drain, Property Taxes, Drug Abuse, the Welfare/Poverty Cycle, the Need for Leadership, and the Lack of Quality Housing.
    Participants rightly identified some of those 10 as being symptoms of others. For instance, the “Brain Drain” of educated students out of the region may be because of the lack of jobs available to them through Workforce Development. Many groups linked Readiness to Work, Drug Abuse and the Welfare/Poverty Cycle.
    Combining the results from the 10 groups gave a fairly clear list of the top three problems facing the area, which were rather striking. Unfortunately, while two of the three were the right calls, there are some problems with the order.
    The primary issue the region faces, according to the participants, is the Welfare/Poverty Cycle. Namely, that the reason this region does not succeed is because, in effect, the poor would rather collect welfare than get a job. That’s not us putting words in their mouths, either — that’s their own description of the problem. In the work groups, some individuals further said: “We need people to know that work is not a crime” and “There are jobs available in southeast Kansas, just people can make more on welfare than working, so they do.”
    While there are undoubtedly people who do take advantage of the system in that manner, there are countless people who don’t, but have to rely on unemployment checks or welfare because they can’t find a job, can’t find a job that pays enough to feed their family, or can’t find a job in their field in this region.
    Although the Welfare/Poverty Cycle should have been in the top three, it should not have been the top issue. The biggest issue should have been Workforce Development — that there is a mismatch between the skills of the workforce and the jobs available. There aren’t enough jobs that are available or worth getting in the region.
    Page 2 of 2 - The second issue the group determined that is keeping the region economically behind is the Need for Leadership. That answer should have been embarrassing for all 250 participants. Included among those 250 participants were county commissioners from every one of the 17 counties. There were mayors and university leaders, community college representatives and business leaders. There were politicians and other elected officials. A vote for a Need for Leadership is an indictment against the participants in that summit. If ever there were a group of people that could — that should — be solving the Need for Leadership, they would have been in that room. And for them to say that leadership is lacking, perhaps that’s a finger pointing at themselves.
    The third issue was Workforce Development, which should have been the first.
    The economic summit also had a problem with selection of its participants. As noted, the vast majority of the crowd included the business leaders, politicians, high-paying academic jobs, and top city officials. The mix of economic wealth in that room did not reflect the mix of economic wealth in the region. In effect, the 250 people in the summit didn’t look like those that make up the region, which may have skewed the results.
    The summit missed the biggest message of the region: There are huge issues of class facing this region. The lower class are facing deep obstacles with poverty. The upper class is neither providing enough leadership, nor thinking enough about the region as a whole. The middle and lower classes are desperate for workforce development, so they can have better, more fulfilling jobs that can help them transition to the next level.
    That’s not to say the summit wasn’t a success. It was. It got people in one room talking about the broad issues that truly face this region. That, in itself, is a success. But if this economic summit does not create any momentum to real change, it will be just another missed opportunity.
    In one of the work groups, one participant said, “Where I think we’ve failed as individuals is to take responsibility for our own well-being.” That’s the lesson everyone needs to take, not only for themselves, but for the region. It’s time for all of us to take responsibility for pulling this region out of the economic quagmire.
    By Andrew Nash, for the Morning Sun

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