HAZARD — Coal mines are shutting down left and right, the state of the economy is grim, and the country is involved in a controversial war.
While this may sound like a present description of circumstances, it is actually what those in this area were living through when U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy made his “poverty tour” 45 years ago through Southeastern Kentucky.
In February 1968, Kennedy spent two days and travelled 200 miles touring cities in the region, experiencing what poverty was really like in this area so he could better understand how to fix what was wrong. While in Prestonsburg, Kennedy spoke on camera about what he had seen.
“There is no real hope for the future amongst many of these people who work hard in the coal mines, and now that the coal mines shut down, they have no place to go,” Kennedy said. “There’s no hope for the future, there’s no industry moving in. The men are trained in government programs and there’s no jobs at the end of the training program because of the cutbacks and because of the demands on our federal budget in Washington and the war in Vietnam.”
If Kennedy could say some of those things today about the area, it may be difficult to find someone who would disagree with him — that is, unless you talked to Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), a nonprofit in Berea tasked with forming economic strategies for Eastern Kentucky.
“I think things are better today than they were in ’68,” Maxson said.
Twenty-five percent of Perry County’s population lived at or below the poverty line in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a slight drop from previous years. Other counties in the region recorded similar rates; Knott County had a 30.5 percent rate, Breathitt County had 35.7 percent, Owlsey County had 39 percent, and Pike County had 22.5 percent. Kentucky had a 19.1 percent poverty rate for that same year, and the nation’s rate was 15.9 percent.
In contrast, the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research recorded poverty rates for Perry County in 1960 and 1970 to be 61.01 percent and 43.51 percent respectively, and 47.45 percent and 29.93 percent respectively for the state for those years.
Despite these obvious improvements in poverty rates, Maxson said he does not think things have improved in the region with any kind of equality, which might be why many living in this region may not think there has been much improvement since the ‘60s.
“I think while some things have changed for the better, they have just not changed enough,” he said.
According to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), in 1960, 214 counties in all of Appalachia were distressed. In 2012, that number dropped to 81, an almost two-thirds decrease. In Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky, the number of distressed counties was 98 in 1960, and only dropped to 66 in 2012. The ARC defines distressed counties as those that rank among the worst 10 percent of the nation’s counties.
“Appalachia overall has improved, Central Appalachia has improved much less, and then, obviously if you look in Eastern Kentucky we’re a big red dot on that map of economic distress,” Maxson explained. “So, now, absolute living standards have improved [in Appalachia], but the gap between East Kentucky and the rest of the country just hasn’t closed that much.”
Jason Belcher, CEO of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development, shares a similar view.
“From 1960 to 2000, if you look at the entire Appalachian range, the poverty rates actually dropped by 50 percent, but in the core areas of Central Appalachia, it’s dropped by much less than that. So, there’s been quite a lot of change over time, but it’s been unevenly distributed,” Belcher said.
Belcher said there is no sort of consensus among anyone, researchers or public officials, as to why the Central Appalachian region has been so slow to prosper compared to the rest of the Appalachian range. One contributing factor, he said, may be the way the state handles coal severance funds.
“If you look at the coal severance money in the state of Kentucky, 50 percent of it goes to the general fund. So, right off the top, about half of what the receipts reflect for the coal severance tax does not come back to the region that produces the coal, it goes elsewhere,” he explained.
According to a report by Representative Ben Waide, District 10, that explains how coal severance money is distributed, only about $70 million of the just over $323 million in coal severance money from 2011 was used solely for coal-producing counties — around 20 percent.
Maxson said even though the distribution of improvement is unequal now, that does not mean there is nothing we can and should be able to do to remedy the problem. He said he thinks there are three main things that need to be aligned in the area for things to start improving: greater investments in the right things and more effective use of funds, support and growth of small businesses, and growth of stronger and more effective local leaders.
“That’s a complex body of things to figure out how to do, but I just think so often we just think about economic development as a technical problem, and it’s not. It’s also a political problem, it’s one of alignment, trying to get people behind a body of work that has all three of those elements,” Maxson explained.
While in Prestonsburg 45 years ago, the late Sen. Kennedy finished his film interview with a sentiment that seems to align with Maxson’s point of view.
“It seems to me that this country is as wealthy as we are, that this is an intolerable condition. It reflects on all of us,” Kennedy said. “We can do things all over the rest of the world, but I think we should do something for our people here in our own country.”