Going the way of My Old Kentucky Home

When we drove into rural eastern Kentucky from Tennessee, I remarked to Bruce that it was amazing how many junkyards there are in the area.

House in Eastern KentuckyThen I saw that those weren’t junkyards—they were just yards around people’s houses. Some (not all of course) were strewn with every kind of discard—rusty appliances, tires and cars and parts of cars. Tarp-covered unknowns. Plastic containers of all sizes. Toys. Sofas and chairs and furniture bits and pieces. Wood scraps and construction materials. And scattered piles of stuff too small to recognize from a passing car, but I think it qualified as garbage.

House in Eastern KentuckyWe’re now about to drive south out of Kentucky toward Nashville, and I can’t leave the state without commenting on how forcefully this phenomenon struck me. There are many areas of Kentucky that look to be thriving. The affluent, manicured pastures of Lexington and the busy state hub of Louisville. And it’s beautiful country around here, even in the spring before it greened out, even with the often-gloomy weather we had. But in eastern Kentucky, the recurring visual of junk-strewn yards really hit me; it felt like a dearth of energy, or caring, or hope.

Eastern Kentucky coal countryDriving the roads cut through here starts to suggest why. The rocky hill cutaways on both sides of the road are the blackest I’ve ever seen. This is coal country, if you can still call it that when less than 8,000 people in eastern Kentucky were employed getting the coal out of the ground, as of a year and a half ago. That’s down about 62% from the peak in 1980.

Now six of the ten poorest counties in the nation are in eastern Kentucky. In Clay County, the country’s poorest, just 54 people had coal jobs in Q1 of 2014, mining about 38,000 tons of coal. That’s a steep drop from the 2.5 million tons that were mined in Clay County when production peaked in 1980.

House in Eastern KentuckyWe stayed in Corbin, KY, for a few days, next door to Clay County and near the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. A few of the people I chatted with reminded me of folks in the hard-hit rust belt region around Johnstown, PA. Both had the somewhat haggard, unhealthy look of a hard life. And the statistics bear that out.

Household income in Clay County is $22,296, just about at the poverty line and roughly half the median income in the US. About 13 percent of people are unemployed. Less than 8 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The disability rate, about 12 percent, is nine times the national rate. Nearly half are obese, and the life expectancy rate is six years below the US average.*

The health of the state is also troubled. Kentucky, long reliant on the coal economy, is now struggling not just with the loss of revenue from declining production. Pollution from coal operations in the Appalachian region as a whole has incurred public health costs of about $75 billion a year. At the same time, it cost Kentucky taxpayers $115 million more in one year to subsidize and regulate the mining industry than the state received in tax revenue from coal.

Kentucky coal license plateI found it ironic that, while the industry is blaming a ‘War on Coal’ by environmentalists and liberals, a big factor in letting coal workers go since the 1980s is mechanization implemented to cut costs. More recently, production has fallen due to the fact that the most accessible and profitable coal is nearly mined out and the remaining ore is harder to extract, making the cost of production higher just when coal is competing with cheaper fuels like natural gas. And strengthening environmental regulations also has impacted costs.

Historic Coal Production in Eastern Kentucky and Projections - 1980-2035Eastern Kentucky’s coal production is expected to continue to fall; experts predict a 70% drop between 2012 and 2020. The US Geological Survey has said “annual coal production from the Appalachian Basin will enter a period of irreversible decline during the next several decades.”

Rural poverty is so intractable largely because it is remote. It’s really hard to incent development far from major highways, where rural roads make shipping difficult and it’s more expensive to build a factory or a tech center. The infrastructure is generally poor. And a big hurdle is the unskilled labor force.

Kentucky coal industry billboardBut even as the industry and the region fight coal’s decline with billboards and bumper stickers—and aggressive conservative politics battling updated EPA climate change regulations—some are focusing on a different future. As I’ve been digging around to better understand the dynamics in this area, one of the more hopeful efforts I came across is a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), working on social, environmental, and economic justice issues including an economic transition away from dependence on coal. Their focus, and that of the investments recommended in the president’s proposed 2016 budget (investments in coal communities, job training, and restoration of mining sites), envisions a way out of the rural dilemma.

House in Eastern KentuckyOne member of KFTC said on their site, “I don’t want companies to want to hire my children because they’re cheap, but because they’re skilled, educated, and creative.”

Eastern Kentucky coal industryBut even with all of the efforts to improve job skills and attract business in Eastern Kentucky, there’s a reason why rural living has been declining and urban populations have been growing for decades. Unfortunately, the best option for many people to find opportunity in the face of a disappearing way of life is to move away from their Old Kentucky Homes. Which I understand is the last thing that many people around here want to do.


*Stats from the excellent 2014 New York Times article, What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky?

Graph: https://www.kftc.org/campaigns/appalachian-transition/coal-production-and-employment-trends

One more interesting piece, if you’re interested in the ‘War on Coal’ issue: http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2014/06/03/is-there-really-a-war-on-coal 

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