Why is Eastern Kentucky so much worse off than the rest of Appalachia?
This is not a rhetorical setup for our own brilliant answer.
We don't have an answer.
Like many, we want to understand why Eastern Kentucky's poverty is so persistent and its economy so unchanging — even while nearby places in other states that once were as impoverished have moved into the economic mainstream.
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Consider: In 1965, 1 in 3 Appalachians lived in poverty. By 2008, the region's poverty rate had improved to 18 percent or a little more than 1 in 6.
But in Appalachian Kentucky, the poverty rate has improved only to 25 percent with 1 in 4 people still living in poverty.
Little wonder the region's young continue to leave. "Tale of two Kentuckys: Cities grow, rural areas decline" was the headline on an article about last year's Census. School-age population is shrinking in some Eastern Kentucky counties while growth soars in the 65-plus age group.
A rollback in postal service is a sign of the decline. A letter mailed from Ashland or Pikeville will now take two days, instead of one, to travel to Lexington, as the mail is routed through Charleston, W.Va.
"What has any of this got to do with me?" you might wonder if you live in Lexington or another of Kentucky's urban or exurban areas that are growing.
To that we do have an answer: There is just one Kentucky.
The state's economic future is entwined with the fate of the mountains and other depressed rural areas.
Whether it's the transfer of revenues from the state's middle to provide for the poor and sick on the edges, the markets that rural areas can provide cities and vice versa, or less quantifiable measures, such as when investors look at the state's demographics and decide to put their money elsewhere, we're all in this together.
The Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency created by Congress in 1965, has pumped millions of dollars into infrastructure, education and job creation in Kentucky and the parts of 12 other states that make up the 205,000 square-mile region stretching from Mississippi to New York.
Each year, the ARC uses a national index to measure economic progress by classifying counties as distressed, at-risk, transitional, competitive or attainment.
Most ARC counties now are classified as transitional, meaning their economies rank between the worst 25 percent and best 25 percent of U.S. counties.
Kentucky has by far the greatest percentage of distressed counties, defined as being in the weakest 10 percent economically. Of Kentucky's 54 ARC counties, 42 — or 77 percent — are classified as distressed. The next closest is 50 percent in northern Mississippi. Kentucky has just five ARC counties classified as transitional: Clark, Madison and Montgomery, economically part of Central Kentucky, and Boyd and Greenup.
There are many contributors to Eastern Kentucky's poverty: corruption, parochial politics, isolation, environmental degradation, exploitation of vast natural resources by absentee owners who return little.
Lately rancor over coal seems to dominate conversations about the future. Whatever coal's impact, it will decline. The U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that Central Appalachian coal production will drop by more than half in the next few years from 234 million tons in 2008 to 112 million tons in 2014.
That makes planning for the future all the more urgent.
And it makes the imminent launch of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development in Pikeville, first endorsed in 1960 by Gov. Bert Combs and more recently an outgrowth of the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, a welcome development.
The institute, which has the support of the universities of Kentucky and Louisville, Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead and Pikeville College, is seeking start-up funding from the ARC. It would serve as a regional think tank.
One of the first things it should think about is why Eastern Kentucky is poorer than the rest of the region. You can't fix what you don't understand