The Insider Louisville’s David Serchuk recently summarized an article, “New York Times: What’s the matter with Eastern Kentucky?
that paints a hopeless picture for Kentuckians in the Appalachian region. The article raised the idea that perhaps people should leave Eastern Kentucky because all attempts to fix poverty over generations have failed. The implication is the war on poverty declared fifty years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson in Inez, Kentucky has no definitive solutions.
The article identifies several reasons why quality of life is so difficult. First, the land itself with remote hills that are hard to navigate makes it difficult for economic development. Second, “remote, sparsely populated areas tend to be poorer because there is no critical mass for creativity and job growth.” Additionally, the region’s major economic driver, coal is a dying industry. Even though the article identifies some reasons that diminish quality of life in Eastern Kentucky, it provides no indication why all attempts to improve quality of life have failed. Over the last fifty years, hundreds of articles have identified challenges, commissions have been established to improve conditions, and millions of dollars have been directed to assist Eastern Kentuckians. So why have all attempts to “fix” poverty in the region failed?
Eastern Kentucky’s war on poverty has not been resolved because it is a multi-dimensional (wicked) problem that has mutated over generations and the dimensions of the problem have not been assessed properly. There are root causes of the problem, and there are secondary and tertiary effects that have evolved over decades. One has to determine the root causes and focus resources to target those issues instead of “throwing” aid at the secondary and tertiary effects in an attempt to make quality of life better with no real strategic plan for how to accomplish this task. Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
In addition to the failure in assessing the dimensions of the problem, there is another shortfall, which James P. Ziliak, the director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, alluded to in the New York Times article: “There has been a historic lack of investment in human capital in these areas.”
In order to “fix” poverty in the region, policymakers should assess the many dimensions of the problem (based on available data), develop a strategic plan, and invest in developing Eastern Kentucky’s community leaders. Additionally, as difficult as the task may be, recruiting outside business industries and long-term economic sustainment should be interwoven into each step of this new strategy. Even if planners assess the root causes (and its effects), develop a plan, invest in building community leaders, and recruit outside businesses today, it will take years to change the dynamics of the region. However, incremental progress could be measured relatively quickly. If we truly care about Eastern Kentuckians, we should care enough to fix the flaws in the last 50 years of spending and stay the strategic-planning course through generational change. The alternative is to avoid this planning effort and human capital investment now which will ensure continued efforts to supply federal aid will fall short of creating the desired change necessary to provide any real hope. It will reinforce the false impression that Eastern Kentuckians should leave their homeland because the war on poverty will never have any definitive solutions.
Danny E. Davis
(Former native of McCreary County, Kentucky)