Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones created a 37-member task force in 1993 to engage citizens in a dialogue about challenges facing Kentucky's Appalachian region. Its work led to a "guide for action" for the region's future and was published in a 1995 report entitled "Communities of Hope."
Twenty years later, Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers announced the creation of another initiative, Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), a 41-member planning committee to oversee a citizen-driven summit to "share new ideas and recommendations about how to move Kentucky's Appalachian region forward."
Like Dwight Eisenhower said, "plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
While this feels like a Herculean task, we should be focusing on the future of Eastern Kentucky, where most, but not all, of Kentucky's persistently poor counties are located. However, the reality is that rural Kentucky — not just Appalachian Kentucky — needs a new plan for the future.
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Of Kentucky's 60 mostly rural counties, over half are in the central and western parts of the state. And along a number of economic, educational and social dimensions, it is often difficult to distinguish between Eastern Kentucky and the rural counties outside of Kentucky's Appalachian region. Trying to figure out one's place in a constantly changing global economic landscape is not just an Eastern Kentucky problem.
When President Johnson's War on Poverty was gathering steam in the late 1960s, 41 of Kentucky's 120 counties had per capita earned income levels placing them in the bottom 10 percent of the 3,000-plus counties in the United States. By 2011 — 42 years later — 35 of these counties, or 85 percent, were still in the bottom 10 percent.
Because earned income is the portion of personal income that does not include transfer payments from various social assistance or public welfare programs, it is a good indicator of the underlying economic vitality of a county or region.
Clearly, there are systemic, deep-seated development hurdles in these counties that are difficult to clear despite the multiple attempts to do so over the last several decades. While the old adage, "Keep doing what you're doing, and you'll keep getting what you got," comes to mind when looking at Kentucky's economic past and thinking about its future, other states have been somewhat more successful in moving counties or regions up the ladder of relative prosperity.
About half of the counties nationally and around 60 percent in the dozen nearby competitor states that were in the bottom ten percent in 1969 were still there in 2011.
More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the SOAR summit in Pikeville on Dec. 9 to discuss the region's future. Based on his studies of rural communities across America, economist Mark Drabenstott outlined an approach a decade ago for rural America to tap into the power of the new economy. His framework for improving rural prosperity has relevance for Kentucky: think and act regionally; find a new economic niche in high-value knowledge industries that leverage the region's strengths; and place a premium on homegrown entrepreneurs.
Kentucky's county-centric parochialism, legacy of undervaluing education, and geographic terrain have presented formidable obstacles in the past, but information and communication technologies offer the potential to overcome these traditional barriers. Indeed, the authors of "Communities of Hope" made the prescient observation in the mid-1990s that "the economic future of Eastern Kentucky is dependent upon our ability to connect the region's businesses, schools, health services, and public facilities to the emerging Information Highway."
Twenty years later, much of eastern and rural Kentucky is wired to the Internet, but the bar has been raised. Having access is no longer good enough — high-speed Internet access is what is required but often lacking in rural communities. An estimated 82 percent of U.S. households have access to broadband speeds required for an OK experience for distance learning (25 mbps), but only about 61 percent of Kentucky households do and the average in the persistently poor Kentucky counties is 18 percent.
Citing the example of "college students in rural areas who have to drive to McDonalds or other commercial centers to take their online exams because they couldn't access or afford the Internet in their own homes," the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education has called for the expansion of high-speed Internet access. Likewise, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has lamented that this modern day digital divide is placing rural students and schools at a competitive disadvantage that will limit "economic development, job creation and entrepreneurial ventures."
High-speed Internet is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for building a prosperous future in rural Kentucky. There are many other needed factors that will be discussed at the upcoming SOAR summit — such as an educated population, adequate investment capital, an abundance of entrepreneurial energy and ideas and adequate social and political support.
With all due respect to Eisenhower, only thoughtful planning will enhance prosperity throughout rural Kentucky. Without these two critical elements, the plight of rural communities across Kentucky in the 21st century will be captured perfectly by the 19th century Twitter-worthy aphorism, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
About the authors: Dan O'Hair is dean and professor of the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky; Michael Childress is research associate for UK's Center for Business and Economic Research.