Speak Your Piece: ‘The Hardest Place to Live’

In a response to the New York Times' “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky,” an Appalachian writer says numbers don’t lie, but they don’t necessarily tell all of the truth, either.

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I first heard about it from my friend Jeanette.

We were driving up Kentucky 11 from Clay County into Owsley, a rock cliff on one side of the road, the green South Fork of the Kentucky River on the other, on our way to Booneville to see a play. I’d been writing and not keeping up with current events.  

That day’s online New York Times Magazine had reported on a statistical study ranking every county in the United States, Jeanette told me. Clay County had come in last.    

At first I felt sort of proud. I live in what the New York Times calls the hardest place to live in the United States. I’ve lived here for 20 years. My family has lived here for seven generations. We must be strong, resourceful and resilient. Or at least persistent.   

*

Next morning I walked with the dogs down to the creek, past the barn my grandfather built, now collapsing into weathered boards and twisted metal, past his corn and tobacco fields, grown up in briars and sumac.

It’s a popular joke here: A man wins the lottery. Somebody asks him what he’ll do with the money. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I’ll just keep farming till it’s gone.”

While the dogs explore the woods, I sit on a rock beside the creek. Poplar and sycamore branches arc above me. A cool breeze wafts down out of the holler. Later I’ll pick blackberries for a cobbler and fix a supper fresh from the garden.  

If this is the hardest place to live in the United States, I thought, then I feel encouraged about the country as a whole.    

Photo Courtesy of Anne Shelby
The author’s grandparents – one of four generations that has lived on Shelby’s homeplace in Eastern Kentucky.

I approached the article with caution.

We’ve grown skittish here in Eastern Kentucky about accounts of ourselves in the national media, having seen too many over the years that bore little or no resemblance to our actual lives. Writers about the region have been following the same pop-in, pop-out and pop-off pattern for about 150 years now, ever since the local-color writers popped in just after the Civil War. And mountain people have been complaining about it just that long.

So I was relieved to find that Annie Lowery’s article depended more on statistics than on stereotypes and that it took seriously the growing phenomenon of rural poverty.    

Still, reading “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?” was hardly cringe-free. 

I’ll let the title go.

I won’t say anything about the graphic, a Kentucky license plate that reads HELP ME.

I’ll ignore the crack about “drawls.”

And surely I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with referring to Appalachia and the Deep South as “the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh.”

Tim Marema, editor of The Daily Yonder, concluded his response to the Lowery piece this way:  “Remember, . . . rural folks are standing right here. You know we can hear you, right?”    

Photo Courtesy of Anne Shelby
Teges Creek, on the homeplace.

*

Then there was this: “Clay County, in dead last, might as well be in a different country.”

It’s an old idea, Appalachia as separate and different from the rest of America, an idea most Clay Countians would find surprising, given our location, our history, our patriotism, and our economy, which has always risen and fallen with the national economy and with the vagaries of national corporations.    

But what’s the matter with “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?” goes beyond occasional lapses into hyperbole and urban condescension.  

*

Lowery reports on a study that compiled data by county in six categories: education, median income, life expectancy, rates of unemployment, disability and obesity. When each county’s numbers were averaged and the averages ranked, out of 3,135 counties, six in Eastern Kentucky – Lee, Leslie, Breathitt, Magoffin, Jackson and Clay – landed in the bottom 10. Clay County was number 3,135. According to the data, 12.7% of Clay Countians are unemployed, 11.7% are disabled, 45% are obese. These are hard facts, not to be ignored.

But does the average of these six “data points” mean that Clay County is “the hardest place to live in the United States”?

Lowery does qualify the assertion: “Eastern Kentucky . . . might be the hardest place to live in the United States. Statistically speaking.” But these subtleties are lost in the rest of the story and in subsequent reports, some of which changed the Times’ term “hardest” to ““worst.”

Volumes could be – and have been – written analyzing the complex reasons for Eastern Kentucky’s deep and persistent poverty. At least two book-length studies focus on the history of poverty in Clay County alone. Lowery’s attempt to cover the territory in 2,000 words or less, while ambitious, was bound to be superficial.   

Betsy Taylor, in “A Journalistic Selfie” in The Daily Yonder, accuses Lowery of ignoring history, cause and effect.

Author Silas House posted his response to “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?” on his blog, A Country Boy Can Surmise.  The title: “The Matter Is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About.”

*

The Times piece depends on statistics, not just to define the problem, but to solve it, too. The thing for us to do – and the government should help us do this, the story suggests – is to relocate to places with better numbers. We could, for example, head out to Los Alamos County, New Mexico, and get jobs in the nuclear weapons industry. Since Los Alamos County boasts the best statistics, it should, by the article’s logic, be the easiest place in the country to live.

Moving into a suburb of the nation’s capital might be nice. Six of those counties made it into the top 10. 

Senator Rand Paul suggests Williston, North Dakota.

Photo Courtesy of Anne Shelby
Another generation: the author’s grandchildren on the back porch.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Kentucky and around the Appalachian region, a lot of people are working to try to change statistics like those reported in the Times. Here in Clay County, a local group called Stay in Clay is generating festivals, murals, walking trails, restoration projects, strategies for strengthening the local economy, and  hope.      

The play my friend and I went to see in Owsley County the day the Times story came out was HomeSong 2, a community play produced by local organizations, cast with local actors and musicians, and scripted from interviews with local residents.  I helped with the script.

At 17th from the bottom in the Times’ ranking, Owsley County escaped notice this time. But after 2010 census figures showed that the tiny county had the nation’s lowest median household income, Owsley was branded  “the poorest county in the United States,” and reporters have been popping in and out like Orville Redenbachers ever since.     

One monologue from the play that night drew a spontaneous burst of applause. Here’s an excerpt:

Maybe we need to come up with a different quality of life index for little country places like ours. How many points could we get for each hill? How much is a river worth? Can we add a category for walking on ground your ancestors walked? Or for the percentage of neighbors who’d show up in five minutes if you needed them, day or night? How can you measure that? And how can you measure how much you’d miss a place, if you had to leave?   

Anne Shelby is an essayist, playwright, poet and children’s book author who lives in Clay County, Kentucky. An abbreviated version of this essay was published in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader.

 

 

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