At 19.4 percent (823,000 people), the Bluegrass State has the fifth highest poverty rate in the nation. But as dismal as those numbers are, there has been real improvement since President Johnson made Martin County ground zero in his War on Poverty in 1964. There, as NPR recently documented, a poverty rate double the national average represents progress:
"In this south-central mountain country, over a third of the population is faced with chronic unemployment," says a government film on Johnson's visit. "Typical of this group is Tom Fletcher, his wife and eight children. Fletcher, an unemployed sawmill operator, earned only $400 last year and has been able to find little employment in the last two years."
At the time, the poverty rate in this coal-mining area was more than 60 percent...Today, the roads here are well-paved. People say the schools and hospitals are much better than they used to be. Still, Martin County remains one of the poorest counties in the country. Its poverty rate is 35 percent, more than twice the national average. Unemployment remains high. Only 9 percent of the adults have a college degree.
And for many in this part of the state, federal poverty-fighting measures make all the difference. For Norma Moore and her ill 8-year-old grandson, food stamps, energy assistance to heat her home and his Supplemental Security Income (SSI) means a roof over their heads:
"I would be homeless. I would be the one living on the street if it wasn't for that," she says. She looks down at her grandson on the floor. "He would probably be in a home somewhere."
Thousands of her neighbors in eastern Kentucky doubtless share Moore's sentiment. By almost every measure, but for the LBJ-era federal safety net including Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, more spending on education, and tax cuts to help create jobs, Kentucky would be facing a human catastrophe of mammoth proportions.
Consider, for example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. Last fall, all five Republican House members voted for steep cuts to SNAP, despite the fact that 800,000 Kentuckians are enrolled in the program, 60 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line—an income of $22,000 for a family of four. Despite representing the second-poorest district in America, GOP Congressman Hal Roger (KY-5) nevertheless claimed, "I didn't think it will have an adverse impact on my district." In Owsley County, half of the 4,700 residents—98.5 percent of them white—received food stamps in 2011.
Making matters worse, Kentuckians are among the unhealthiest in the country and served by a health care system which is failing them. America's Health Rankings scored the Bluegrass State 45th overall, with rankings for smoking (50), diabetes (38) and obesity (42) among the worst in the country. The Commonwealth Fund's State Healthcare Scorecard gave the home of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul the same grim 45th place. As it turns out, the Kentucky counties with the very worst health care outcomes are all within hollerin' distance (pun intended) of Rep. Rogers:
At 7.7 percent, unemployment in Kentucky is a full point above the national average. But in the eastern part of the state, the situation is far more dire. In Jackson County, 18.3 percent of residents are jobless. In six more counties (Magoffin, Leslie, Harlan, Letcher, Knott and Menifee), unemployment tops 15 percent. As John Sturgill, who joined 300 other unemployed coal miners at a job fair last month offering 40 openings, put it:
"There's so many people unemployed, fighting over so few jobs."
And absent help from the government, that bleak picture is about to get worse. Not because of an "entitlement attitude
" which has been "passed down through generations." And not because of the "pillbillies" who inhabit what Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review termed "the white ghetto
." Instead, the Wall Street Journal
("Coal's Decline Hits Hardest in the Mines of Kentucky
") warned, "Unprecedented pressures on the U.S. coal industry and nearly two years of mine closures and layoffs are reshaping the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfields in ways that many experts believe could be permanent."
Lower-cost coal from big new basins in Wyoming and Illinois and, more importantly, competition from America's booming natural gas production, could make Kentucky coal mines an endangered species. The results of the Journal's survey of 26 Kentucky counties were startling:
The number of coal-mining and related jobs in the region remained fairly steady between 2000 through 2011, fluctuating from one quarter to the next by an average of about 400 jobs, but never dipping below 11,400. Since 2011, the area has seen an unrelenting decline that left eastern Kentucky with just 8,000 mining jobs in the second quarter of this year. State officials say there are now fewer miners working in Kentucky than any other time in records dating to the 1920s--a decline largely driven by the eastern slice of the state.
The state's eastern coalfields had 161 active mines in the second quarter of this year, down from an average of 256 active mines for the four quarters of 2011, according to the analysis of the federal data.
"We're at a difficult crossroads," said Joe Grieshop, Harlan County judge executive, the county's highest elected position. There were 22 mines with coal production in the second quarter of this year, down from 44 at the beginning of 2011, according to the MSHA data.
The region’s contracting population
and 20-plus years of rising unemployment tell the tale. “The underlying story of Appalachia is in fact one of declining opportunity,” Paul Krugman
lamented, before concluding that “William Julius Wilson was right”:
Wilson famously argued that the social troubles of urban blacks emerged, not because there was something inherently wrong with their culture, but because job opportunities in inner cities dried up. Sure enough, when the God-fearing (and definitely white) people of Appalachia face a loss of employment opportunity, their region turns into what Williamson calls the Great White Ghetto.
The case for federal action to help Kentucky workers transition to other jobs and stay afloat until they do seems like a strong one. According to the National Women's Law Center, increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, as President Obama has proposed and Kentucky Sens. McConnell and Paul opposed, would mean a raise for 250,000 women in Kentucky alone. Obama's economic "Promise Zone" for eastern Kentucky—one of five around the country he announced in January—would bring federal dollars and agency resources to bear for of Harlan, Bell, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay and Knox counties, along with much of Whitley County. While Rogers, Paul and McConnell were all on hand to support President Obama's largesse to their constituents, the Senate Minority Leader nevertheless mocked a federal biofuels grant he previously sought.
The biggest difference in the lives of Kentuckians, however, may come from the program Republican politicians there despise most: Obamacare. Thanks to the state's Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and his support for the expansion of Medicaid, Kentucky has enjoyed the smoothest rollout and among the best enrollment numbers anywhere. By mid-February, 231,000 Kentucky residents had signed up for insurance through Kynect, the state exchange. Among them, 49,662 have enrolled in a qualified private health plan while 181,705 obtained coverage through Medicaid. (By this week, total enrollment reached 300,000.) And as it turns out, health insurance enrollment is proceeding best in the places that need it most. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reported:
Eastern Kentucky counties lead in enrollment for Affordable Care Act.
Those numbers represent very good news—and a financial boon--for the poor of eastern Kentucky. As ThinkProgress recently reported, “A new study by the Brookings Institute finds that Obamacare’s private insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion will have the effect of raising the poorest Americans’ incomes by anywhere from five to seven percent.”
Six years before Paul Ryan unveiled his bungled critique, "The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later," another Republican presidential hopeful followed in LBJ's footsteps and ventured to Martin County, Kentucky. As part of his "Forgotten Places" tour that included Youngstown, Ohio and Selma, Alabama, 2008 GOP nominee John McCain traveled to Inez, Kentucky. There, McCain declared, "You have a right to expect us to show as much concern for helping you create more and better choices to make for yourselves as we show any other community in America." McCain's answer for the poverty that had plagued Martin County for decades?
"Today, for example, 1.3 million people in the world make a living off eBay, most of those are in the United State of America."
(McCain supporter and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman couldn't have said it better herself. As she put to Lesley Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes
just the month before, "We have about—around the world, about 1.3 million people make most, if not all, of their living selling on eBay.")
For his part, 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan did not choose Meg Whitman as his poverty inspiration and thus avoided endorsing a nation of online auctioneers. Instead, he turned to Charles Murray of The Bell Curve and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, whose contributions to the debate include his thesis on racial disparities in IQ expressed in such memorable guidance as "a lot of poor people are born lazy." For Murray, immutable racial characteristics and blighted social mores—and not globalization, structural economic change or tax policy—are the causes of persistent poverty. Therefore, the solution does not (and so should not) involve government action, but only changing personal values. Or as Ryan repackaged it this week:
"We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."
Paul Ryan should try to explain that to the good men and women of eastern Kentucky. As the Lexington Herald-Ledger
pointed out in November 2013, "As an austerity-minded Congress continues to cut food stamps, Head Start and other anti-poverty measures, it's not clear what will sustain them." Certainly not Paul Ryan's Republican Party:
Martin County nonetheless voted for Romney by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio over Democratic President Barack Obama.