Income Inequality in Paducah

The Paducah Sun recently reported that the Paducah area has Kentucky's biggest income gap. The conclusions of a study released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) were that

The average income of the top 1 percent in Paducah is $695,631, compared to an average income of $37,418 for the bottom 99 percent.

As a county, McCracken has the third-widest gap in the state, with its top 1 percent earning $829,449 on average, 20.8 times more than the average $39,808 the bottom 99 percent makes.

Those numbers can be overwhelming. As Monique Zuber, executive director of the United Way of Paducah-McCracken County, says in the article, "It's something that people don't see, so I hope this will make companies and individuals really think twice about wages and salaries that are being offered locally. People think national problems don't trickle down to Paducah, and they really do."

We cannot convince ourselves - either as citizens or as leaders - that these national trends don't affect us. Income inequality can be a polarizing topic. With the political narrative commonly describing some kind of war between the haves and the have nots.

Well, Paducah might be affected by national trends but we don't have to adopt the national narratives that accompany them. We can acknowledge this is a problem without pretending that only one side has the solutions. 

In the Paducah Sun article, Monique points to the Community Scholarship, funded in part by the City of Paducah, and community mentoring problems as programs that aim to help those at the bottom of the income ladder rise higher. Hopefully, we will begin to see the fruits of those labor.

I was particularly struck by the insight provided by David Nickell, professor of philosophy and sociology at West Kentucky Community & Technical College, regarding why income gaps are hard to mitigate.

"You get what's called a reinforcing feedback loop, where the more wealth, the more income you have, the easier it is to increase your wealth or income, and the less you have, the harder it is to do anything like that," he said.

"The greater the gap between the rich and the poor gets, the less they have in common with each other, and the less they're going to understand each other. The people in positions of power and authority, elected officials, are typically from the upper class. Most of them aren't going to understand what the real issues are that the poor are facing, the bigger that gap grows."

As Nickell tells his sociology students on the first day of class, "Nothing is a social problem until it's defined as a problem by either a significant number of people or a number of significant people."

If the first step is understanding each other, then I believe Paducah is uniquely positioned to tackle this problem. Our town is too small and too connected to avoid each other and our life experiences. 

I couldn't help but notice the story on the other half of the Paducah Sun - the building of a community playground with the help of thousands from all across our community. Black and white. Rich and poor. Male and female. Old and young. I saw every type of person while volunteering at the work site on Saturday. Now, while we might have been too busy sweating to really engage in meaningful conversation, it was a wonderful first step.

But it can't be the last. 

There are wonderful community groups working towards progress on this level, but the City of Paducah must do more than support these groups financially. The City of Paducah and its leaders must be among the "number of significant people" who seek to connect those at the top and the bottom, that promote understanding among all groups, and that lead the effort to prevent this gap from growing even wider. 

Sarah Holland