THE HILL 02/17/12
By Michael Shank 
and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.)

As the Republican candidates head to Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen’s state of Tennessee next month for the Super Tuesday primaries, one topic seems to have escaped their attention entirely: a credible economic cure for what ails the states in which they’re waging campaigns for president. Naturally, each of the Republican candidates claims that their economic policy prescriptions are superior to those of their rivals. However, when tested against the economic reality facing families in upcoming primary states like Arizona, Michigan or Tennessee, their rhetoric falls far short of addressing the most pressing problems facing each state.

Arizona and Michigan, for example, score in America’s top 10 for the highest incarceration and homicide rates, respectively, while Tennessee scores in the top 10 for the highest homicide and violent crime rates. Previous Republican primary states like Nevada, Florida and South Carolina also have some of America’s highest combined rates of homicide, violent crime and incarceration. These latter three states are also home to the highest percentages of individuals without health insurance, the highest number of children living in single-parent households, and the highest incidence of adult-onset diabetes.

These trends spell disaster for ordinary working families struggling to get by in today’s economy. Combined, they continue to keep these states near the bottom of the U.S. Peace Index, an annual ranking of states prepared by the Institute for Economics and Peace that measures the human cost of violence as well as the economic benefits of peace in each state.

The Peace Index shows what many people already take for granted: Violence substantially undermines the economies of states and cities where it occurs. Last year, the estimated cost of violence to Tennessee’s economy was $11.6 billion, and Nevada’s economy was close to $5.3 billion, while the cost to Florida’s economy exceeded $37 billion and the cost to South Carolina’s economy was close to $9 billion. To date, we’ve heard very little in terms of substance from the candidates on the issues shown to most closely correlate with the Peace Index.

To his credit, in an exchange with Mitt Romney at a recent debate, Rick Santorum raised the issue of restoring the voting rights of felons who have paid their debt to society, which he rightly supports. One of the more interesting findings of the Peace Index study is the discovery that, regardless of party affiliation, there is a significant correlation between voter participation in a state and its overall level of peace.

Will the Republican candidates have something more substantial to say about these issues by the time they arrive in Tennessee’s primary next month? Let’s hope so, because by nearly any measure, this state faces an even greater challenge than Nevada, Florida or South Carolina. All three states rank among the least peaceful in the nation. At 49th on the 2011 U.S. Index, Tennessee has spent the last 12 years near the bottom of the index. Not only does Tennessee have some of the highest rates of homicide and violent crime, but at 17 percent, its poverty rate is also one of the highest in the nation.

Tennessee has also struggled with some of America’s lowest rates of high school graduation, labor force participation, and educational opportunity. Rep. Cohen was proud to pass the Tennessee Education Lottery in 2003, which gives thousands of students across the state a chance to further their education through Hope Scholarship grants. However, a college scholarship is only helpful to students who graduate high school in the first place. While we’ve made great improvement over the last decade, Tennessee’s high school dropout rate is still unacceptably high. The Peace Index study shows that one of the strongest influences on a state’s level of violence is the percentage of adults with high school diplomas.

If the value of peace and economic justice to Tennessee communities is not already plainly apparent, the financial burden it places on businesses and taxpayers should make it crystal clear to anyone. Violence costs Tennesseans an estimated $12 billion annually in law enforcement costs and lost economic activity. As the economy struggles to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression, we simply can’t afford to keep paying the price of ignoring these problems.

President Obama recently proposed a sweeping jobs plan that would go a long way toward addressing many of these issues. To the Republican presidential hopefuls: what prescriptions will you offer for these chronic problems being faced in Tennessee, Nevada, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere? Will you direct your campaigns to work toward preventing ongoing violence in our society by placing an emphasis on education, employment and economic equality? It might not win you many friends on Wall Street or K Street, but you will win hearts and minds on Main Streets across America.

Poverty and inequality — whether in Tennessee, Nevada, Florida, South Carolina or elsewhere — are unacceptable if we want to live in a truly great nation. We cannot presume to lead the world when nearly a third of all Americans live in poverty or in low-income households. America deserves leaders who, rather than campaigning on behalf of the elite minority represented by super-PACs, will instead work toward the attainment of the supreme ideal of the American Dream.

Shank is the U.S. vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Cohen is a member of the House Judiciary and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees.