Some observers are concerned that the people of Eastern Kentucky will lose their way of life as the coal market economy collapses.
The Appalachian region has a long rich history with a unique culture, and no one wants to see that lost forever. But those who see this as the inevitable result of the loss of the coal-based jobs conveniently ignore important aspects of life in those areas today.
The Eastern Kentucky coalfield is comprised of 30 counties which have some frightening statistical parameters summarized below. The numbers in parentheses give the values of the same statistics for the United States as a whole:
■ The mean life expectancy of a male in the coal region is 70.3 years (79.8). For Kentucky overall, the value is 73.2. Seventeen of these counties have a life expectancy less than 70 years.
■ The mean median family income is $29,039 ($51,939).
■ The mean percentage of children living in poverty is 39.4 percent (22 percent).
■ The mean infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births is 7.8 (5.2).
■ The mean incidence of low birth weight per 1,000 live births is 11 (8.2).
■ The percent of people on food stamps is 30 (13).
■ Teenage births per 1,000 is 55.9 (26.5).
■ The high school graduation rate is 73.7 percent (82 percent).
■ The percentage of people with a college degree is 11 (33).
■ The number of deaths per 100,000 attributable to various causes is: lung disease, 78.4 (24.5); diabetes, 30.9 (21.2); cancer, 243 (163); heart disease, 302 (170); homicide, 6.7 (5.2); accidents, 85.9(39.3).
Sixteen of these counties are listed in the 100 poorest in the United States.
Kentucky's eastern coalfield includes five of the top six marijuana-producing counties.
The incidence of black lung disease is increasing dramatically again as miners must work longer hours.
Call me crazy, but I do not see any of those statistics that I would not want to see improved.
Undoubtedly, many of these statistics are related to poor health habits, especially high rates of smoking, drug abuse and obesity.
But the underlying principle that ties all of these parameters together is poverty.
The uncomfortable truth is that alleviating this poverty in Eastern Kentucky is not going to be easy. Generations of people have made their livelihoods by coal mining and old habits die hard, but are the people who are fighting to retain the status quo suggesting that coal mining is the only skill the citizens living there have?
That seems to be a very cruel and cynical statement about the intelligence and adaptability of the people.
Many other states have adapted to new economies when their traditional ones have dried up. For example, the steel city of Pittsburgh reinvented itself by embracing green technology and eco-tourism.
The topography of the coal region severely restricts the kinds of businesses and industries that can be located there successfully, but the leaders of the state should explore new opportunities instead of reminiscing about and romanticizing a past that cannot be recovered.
Perhaps an excerpt from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is appropriate here. While he was in the orphanage, young Oliver had the audacity to ask for more of the putrid gruel served at dinner.
Why are the people of Eastern Kentucky begging for more of the same gruel that has condemned them to the abject poverty that continues to ruin their lives?