Economy

New data from the Census Bureau show eastern Kentucky is still struggling with poverty and lagging far behind national and state averages in terms of income.

U.S. Census Bureau

The Bureau’s latest American Community Survey shows Bell, Harlan and McCreary Counties have some of the lowest median household incomes in the United States. Of counties with 10,000 residents or more, those three Kentucky counties were among the bottom five in the country when ranked by median income.

From 2012 to 2017, the survey shows, median household income has risen between by more than $4,600 in the U.S. and nearly $4,000 in Kentucky as a whole. But median incomes in Bell, Harlan and McCreary counties have fallen in that five-year span by more than $4,000.

The median incomes in these eastern Kentucky counties range from $19,000 to $24,500, far below the state median of $46,535 and the U.S. median of $57,652.

These communities and many others in Kentucky also continue to experience high levels of poverty. The Bureau’s survey shows Middlesboro, a city in Bell County, has one of the highest poverty rates among small towns in the country, with 40 percent of the town’s population living in poverty.

“Those communities grew up being too reliant on a single industry like coal, and there wasn’t enough diversification over time to withstand an economic shock like they’ve faced over the last several years,” says James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research.

Efforts are being made to improve the economic futures of communities abandoned by industry. The Appalachian Regional Commission provides grant funding to help such communities diversify their economies. Last year, ARC allocated $20 million to projects focused on job training and creation, growing tourism, and increasing access to essential services such as healthcare.

However, the rural region’s weak infrastructure remains a hurdle. Several communities in eastern Kentucky struggle to deliver basic clean water and sanitation. And the Bureau’s survey points to a “digital divide” between urban and rural areas when it comes to availability of high-speed internet.

215-21-WH64LBJ Library/public domain

President Lyndon Johnson on the porch of a Martin County home in 1964, as he launched his “War on Poverty.”

Census numbers indicate that “completely rural” counties have a broadband internet subscription rate 10 percentage points lower than “mostly urban” counties.

“That means that our fellow citizens living in these rural communities are missing out on a lot of economic opportunities because we haven’t made sufficient investments in infrastructure like broadband,” Ziliak said.

Jeff Young is the Managing Editor of The Ohio Valley ReSource.
Based at Louisville Public Media, Alexandra Kanik is the Ohio Valley Resource's Data Reporter.