Kentucky voices

Ky. voices: Sound plan: Move out of mountains to find jobs

December 1, 2013 

Jim Parks of Frankfort was a newspaper reporter and editor and spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

As a longtime resident of Central Kentucky, I have no interest in either the state or federal governments spending more money on projects and programs in Eastern Kentucky.

I have seen enough of those over the past 50 years. While infrastructure and service efforts improved the quality of life for many Eastern Kentuckians, they failed to create a new economy.

To create an economy, you must possess something or produce something that other people want and will pay for. Historically, the only significant thing Eastern Kentucky has that other people want is coal.

That is changing. With abundant new supplies of clean, cheap and easily transportable natural gas being produced in Ohio, Texas and the Dakotas, Eastern Kentucky's coal is no longer wanted by many traditional customers. It's less economically competitive in a free-market economy.

This situation poses two basic problems: What can be done immediately about the people losing their livelihoods — not just miners, but people working in businesses and services in the mining communities? What do we do to create alternative economies in Eastern Kentucky?

The answer to the first question is fairly simple: Do what your ancestors did — relocate.

In the 1950s and 1960s, after railroads switched from steam locomotives to diesel locomotives and after the United Mine Workers' John L. Lewis agreed to increased mechanization in return for lifetime pensions and medical benefits, coal mining employment declined and the population of the coal producing counties in Eastern Kentucky declined by 33 percent.

Nearly 160,000 people left the region for opportunities in other parts of America. Nearly all succeeded, and many thrived in their new homes.

The 1970s "energy crisis" — the OPEC oil embargo — created a coal boom. Coal-county populations increased by 87,000 during the 1970s. The boom over, during the next 20 years, the population declined by 44,000. Lots of people moved to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere.

In coal busts in Eastern Kentucky, the traditional response — with no government help — over three generations was to move to more prosperous places.

The alternative to moving is to wait until politicians produce a new economy. It ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

For more than 200 years, politicians and entrepreneurs in Appalachian Kentucky have been unable to produce a thriving economic alternative to coal.

This is true not just in coal-producing counties, but also in non-coal counties with similar geography: Estill, Jackson, Owsley, Lee, Carter, Grayson, Lewis, Greenup, Lawrence, Fleming, Rowan, Elliott and Morgan, among others.

The alternative to moving is to wait until politicians produce a new economy.

If Eastern Kentuckians want prosperity now, they must seek it elsewhere, not sit and wait for politicians to deliver it to the head of their hollow.

The rest of us must refrain from handwringing and give the good people of Eastern Kentucky an opportunity to solve their own problems in their own way — without any new projects or programs.

Jim Parks of Frankfort was a newspaper reporter and editor and spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

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