Why is Eastern Kentucky so poor?

Johnathan Gay

January 29, 2014

Fifty years after the War on Poverty was declared in Martin County, our region remains one of the poorest places in America. Why? The answer is important. If we are ever to get ahead, we must first understand what holds us back.

I believe the answer to our poverty can be summed up in three simple words: Geography, location, and culture.

Geographically speaking, our region is blessed with beautiful mountains and isolated valleys, but this geography comes with a price. Communication and collaboration are difficult; straight highways, expensive and rare; and flat land to build large towns is largely non-existent.

In terms of location, East Kentucky is not like Gatlinburg or Asheville, other successful Appalachian areas. It’s not located in the same region as a major metropolitan area, the way east Tennessee is located approximate to Knoxville, and it isn’t as centralized as Asheville. (Consider: Asheville was once the third largest city in the state, sat astride key railroad routes in the 1800s, is close to three interstate highways today, and is now home to nearly 500,000 residents. In short, it’s a far cry from any of our communities.)

This brings me to culture, the most difficult and intransigent issue to overcome. First, let me say I love our arts and folklore. I also love our loyalty, our attachment to place and heritage, and even our stubbornness. But if we are to be honest, we must acknowledge some of this can be problematic just as it can be wonderful. Secondly, when discussing culture in our area, we must acknowledge, I feel, that there are socioeconomic distinctions between groups within our population. Put simply, I believe there’s a working class in our region, and that there is a class that is even poorer.

The working class in East Kentucky suffers from the same issues that most working class has suffered from in America. We were prepared for and did well in an industrial economy. But the changes to a post-industrial economy have not served us well. Our educational attainment rates, unwillingness to leave home for a better job, and stubbornness in the face of challenges has probably hurt our working class.

Meanwhile, there exists in our region a class of people who have been intergenerationally impoverished. Virtually no members of many families I have known (and call friends, by the way) have a history of work. The difference between, say, East Kentucky and Lexington is that while this group of people exists in both areas, in East Kentucky their percentages are much higher.

What does this mean in terms of a possible way out? First, I would argue that geography and location will make large industry virtually impossible, so industrial recruitment will be a loser. Second, we must make a virtue of our vice — remoteness and isolation — via entrepreneurship. Third, we must look at ways to change our people’s mindsets on a host of issues relative to this new economy. I will explore these themes further in these pages in future weeks.

Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office in Morehead (www.kyinnovation.com). The opinions expressed here are his own.