Sleepless in Kansas? Maybe not, if you are a student at Emporia State University.

ESU has contracted with a private company to install two sleeping pods. They are designed to be dark, quiet and clean. Pods must be reserved in advance, the areas are secure, private and monitored, and the pods are cleaned after each user.

Reaction on social media has been passionate and mixed. Most ESU students willing to venture an opinion are excited, but some alumni and community members remain unconvinced. Snarky comments abound, featuring the predictable accusation that today’s college students are coddled, along with the inevitable “back in my day…” reminiscences.

What are the hard facts about sleep deprivation in Kansas? We have good data, thanks to countyhealthrankings.org, a website created in partnership between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin. The site is a treasure trove of facts, organized by county for every U.S. state. We can compare Kansas counties to one another and to other states. 

For me, a visit to countyhealthrankings.org was a classic lesson in good social science. I visited the site with preconceived notions —ones which the data failed to confirm. When I think of sleep deprivation here, I immediately think of harried young parents in places like Johnson County, stuck in traffic or racing the SUV through the drive-thru lane for a triple-cafe latte, trying desperately to stay awake in between the extra hours at work and prearranged playdates for the kids. 

This is exactly why we need to test our preconceptions with real data. Despite my stereotypes, Johnson County has the lowest incidence of sleep deprivation in the state. In 2016, 25% of Johnson Countians reported normally getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, compared to 31% statewide. The state’s most sleep-deprived county is their neighbor — Wyandotte, home of Kansas City, Kansas, and a good deal less wealthy than Johnson County. 

There is a pattern here. Counties with the combination of urban areas and high poverty have the most sleep deprivation. Still within the fringes of the KC area, Leavenworth and Atchison counties rank second and third after Wyandotte for sleepiness, while Wichita’s Sedgwick County ranks fourth. To the east, St. Louis City ranks as the most sleep-deprived in Missouri, while Kansas City’s Jackson County is second. 

To our west, Colorado’s mountains are famous for outdoor recreation, popular with migrants moving or vacationing there to experience it. Not surprisingly, the United Health Foundation ranked Colorado as America’s eighth healthiest state in 2018. Yet the pattern can be seen there, too. In Pueblo, the median income is a good deal lower than the state as a whole, and Pueblo County is the state’s most sleep-deprived. Growing suburban counties outside Denver and Colorado Springs tend to be the state’s least exhausted.

Sleep deprivation is a state and national epidemic, and it correlates with many of the deadliest ailments Americans suffer today. These include high blood pressure, stress, obesity and reliance on toxic stimulants like nicotine — or worse — to stay awake. Stereotypes about the harried suburban soccer mom notwithstanding, the largest concentrations of Kansans suffering these effects are in lower-income, urban areas. Here at ESU, the new sleep pods will help those students who choose to use them, and also call attention to a serious, national health problem. This is commendable, but as the hard data remind us, the ones hit hardest by our state’s sleep problems are the urban poor.

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