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Study Delves Into Wyandotte County Health Divide

Meg Wingerter
KHI News Service
A new study found that the 13 Census tracts with the earliest deaths in KCK were in higher-poverty neighborhoods, mostly in eastern Wyandotte County.

It isn’t far from the gleaming bank buildings and high-end hotels to the rent-to-own stores and corner shops that stock more chips than fruit.

A visitor getting off the highway in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, would pass by a Hilton Garden Inn and several high-rise buildings bearing the names of financial companies.

But a few blocks across the Seventh Street Trafficway, the storefronts become more worn down and the food options narrow to McDonald’s and the One Stop Shop, where the only vegetables are jarred tomato sauce and canned jalapenos.

To the east of Seventh Street, the average resident dies around age 72, according to a new study of health disparities in Wyandotte County. Cross the street, however, and that average drops to 59. The next-closest community where most people live into their 70s is west of Interstate 635, about four miles away.

Wyandotte County consistently ranks near the bottom of Kansas counties on health outcomes, despite sharing a border with Johnson County, which usually comes in first or second. Even within Wyandotte County, however, a person’s address can have a serious effect on his health.

Few jobs in Kansas City’s northeastern neighborhoods pay middle-class wages, and residents have limited options for buying healthy food or getting some exercise, said Broderick Crawford, executive director of NBC Community Development Corporation and a longtime community volunteer. All of those factors contribute to unhealthy stresses on residents, he said.

“You have parents and grandparents that are stressing over paying the rent, buying medicine, providing for the kids,” he said.

To the east of Seventh Street, the average resident dies around age 72. Cross the street, however, and that average drops to 59.

The study found that all of the 13 Census tracts with the earliest deaths were in higher-poverty neighborhoods, mostly in eastern Wyandotte County. Of those 13 tracts, nine were predominantly Hispanic, two had black majorities and one was ethnically mixed.

The tracts with the shortest average lifespan also shared other socioeconomic challenges, such as high rates of residents without health insurance and significant numbers of residents who had been incarcerated, were unemployed or had a limited ability to communicate in English. Their residents also were more likely to live in older housing, putting them at risk from lead paint, mold and other contaminants.

The 12 Census tracts with the highest life expectancies generally had fewer socioeconomic problems. Seven were predominantly white, two were predominantly black and three were ethnically mixed.

Other U.S. cities that began growing in earnest before the middle of the 20th century have a similar pattern, said David Norris, who was one of two researchers with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University who compiled the report for the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County.

While there are exceptions, areas deemed undesirable for lenders in the 1930s because of their racial composition tend to be the same areas that show poor outcomes today, he said.

“By and large what we find as you proceed forward to the present day, you see a pattern of disinvestment,” he said.

Often, developers and officials have passed over the northeastern Wyandotte County neighborhoods when bringing in new businesses and investing in amenities like trails, Crawford said.

Now, the nonprofit organizations focusing on access to health care, housing, workforce development and other issues are working together to help residents present a united front and get funding for their priorities, he said.

The shift came from the realization that a larger group of people can influence public policy and that health, education, economic development and other factors are tied together, Crawford said. “We have to do something different,” he said.

Jerry Jones, executive director of the Community Health Council, said the group initially wanted to look for patterns in emergency room admissions at two Wyandotte County hospitals. When they found people who were frequently readmitted tended to live in certain areas, they started examining the social conditions in those spots, he said. Poverty and few health resources appeared to be the norm.

“We wanted to understand what is it about these particular neighborhoods,” he said.