Speak Your Piece: Living in the Fixer-Upper

The people of Eastern Kentucky are fed up with coming in last. We're ready to stop digging and start facing facts -- the facts of our own true resources and our mistakes.

Elwood Cornett stopped by my office. He is a retired educator and a minister, a kind and decent man. He came by six years ago on the same mission: to tell me about the effort to bring a federal prison to our county and to ask for my support. Our county is poor. The few industrial jobs we’ve had are in coalmining and that ship is sailing away. For most of the last ten years Mr. Cornett’s volunteer group has been trying to attract a $300 million dollar prison project with its promise of good jobs and outside investment.

It is the kind of crummy choice rural communities often get. And in Appalachia it appears to be as close to a choice as anyone out there is going to give us. You preen for the Bureau of Prison screeners, you pledge all manner of local support, you turn your schools into corrections training facilities, and then if all goes well, you get outside contractors paying their own tethered suppliers to build a frightful facility with the few decent paying jobs going to qualified people mostly from long distances away.  From that day forward this community will be known mostly for the prison and the special notoriety of the individuals housed there: terrorists, drug kingpins, and if we are lucky, local politicians.

Of course some fast food franchises and convenience stores will feed and fuel the families from the New Jersey or New Mexico who drive in to visit a wayward child, but the promised economic impact of the prison will lie there, beckoning but beyond local reach.

At least that is where the evidence points. Our Congressional District, Kentucky’s 5th, is the nation’s poorest. The two poorest counties in this poorest of Congressional Districts have federal prisons that some civic boosters thought would help them turn things around. They just didn’t. As the song “Jericho” says, “We are the prisoners of prisoners we have taken.”

This is not to criticize Mr. Cornett. He is fighting for the prison because he loves his community and sees no other alternative. He told me that. And barring federal sequestration or spontaneous penal reform, there is the pending promise of a large federal outlay for this facility. The head of the House Appropriations Committee is our Congressman, Hal Rogers, who is doing what he can to get it here.

My questions about the coalfield economy are more basic than whether we get a maximum-security prison. To start, how did we get in this mess? Can we turn this thing around? Why do we always wind up back here fattening frogs for snakes?

Being poor is not a permanent predicament in this country. But it is a problem that won’t fix itself.  Throughout the twentieth century U.S. ethnic groups like Greeks and Koreans devised strategies to help their communities and to move immigrant families out of destitution. Many poor rural communities have been transformed from hard-scrabble to self-sufficiency and, in some unusual cases, to high-tech and amenity-rich zones of great wealth. Cities given up for dead make comebacks and create new prosperity. Strategies that work are not overnight “get me a grant” successes; they are more often plodding developments where the benefits may only come a generation or two down the pike. That might not sound like much of a solution to an out-of-work miner who has truck, car, and house payments he cannot make, but in this neck of the woods we did not get to where we got fast, and it is going to take a serious do-over to get us out.

One hundred years ago our corner of east Kentucky was probably as rich in resources as any similarly sized-region in the country. We had abundant coal, oil, gas, water, and timber. We also had the rugged mountain beauty that could have been the foundation for destination tourism. So by some standard measurements we had excessive riches.

Ted Wathen/Rough Road
An old growth poplar tree stands in Lilley Cornett Woods, Letcher County, Kentucky

Today the Congressional District that spans the same corner of east Kentucky is ranked 436th in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (a comparative national indicator of wealth, health, and outlook, meaning mental health). And 436th is the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. Not only are we the poorest part of the United States, the life expectancy here has slipped below that in countries like China and Mexico. We are ranked at the top in psychological maladies like clinical depression. Embarrassingly, we are the part of Appalachia where other parts of Appalachia send a Santa Claus train to help us come up with Christmas gifts for our children.

Say this is a teachable moment. If what you are doing takes you to the bottom of the barrel, try doing something different. As my dad would try again and again to explain to me, you can’t dig your way out of a hole. For east Kentuckians, it is particularly discouraging to realize that in every other part of the country, no matter how funny the people talk, what ball teams they root for, or what outfits they wear when they go to town, they are all doing better than we are. That can’t be right.

In Sunday school we were told the story of the master and his slaves.  Before leaving on a journey the master divided his wealth among three servants. He gave the first one five talents (something like five bags of silver). That servant invested and doubled the money, all of which he gives back to the master when he returns. The second slave received two talents. And through his acumen he doubled his allotment and also returns the principal and the profit to the master. For all their enterprise both faithful servants are rewarded with new responsibilities and their owner’s respect.

Have we buried our treasure, failing to use our natural riches wisely?

The third servant, however, was given just a single bag of silver, and fearing all that might go wrong, he buried it until his master returned home.  When he repays only the single bag of silver, that servant is punished for both his caution and for his lack of industry. He is cast out into the darkness. Bible stories don’t always end well. And no matter how kindly the sweetest Sunday school teacher explained it, that third guy in the story was me. I always knew it. Now I am thinking maybe it’s us.

How does the richest region become the poorest? Did we invest the resources entrusted to us unwisely? Were we loafing while the rest of the country was enterprising? Did we serve the wrong master? Did we keep quiet, go along and get along, when we should have been making hay?

Almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national war on poverty. Coming the day after his one visit to the coalfields of east Kentucky, it was his idea for a do-over. He had grown up in abject poverty himself in dirt farm country in central Texas. According to historian Robert Caro, his family was so poor that they would not have eaten had the neighbors not organized themselves to bring plates of food by in the evenings.

The poverty he wanted to wage war on in 1965 was something he had actually experienced as a child, a legacy that motivated him through his political life. In announcing the federal initiative, he said the weapons the country would use in this war were education, health, training, and job opportunities. He was saying that being poor does not have to be a permanent predicament.  He was saying that poor places like poor families can turn themselves around with a little help.  It was the lesson he took from the parable he had lived through.

Lyndon Johnson taught school in Cotulla, Texas, 1927-28, an experience that along with his own childhood led him to confront the problem of poverty in the U.S.

I would like to think that Johnson was right, because if he was, then the tools, at least some of them that we need to create prosperity, are already here. The schools are here. We just need to make them better, a lot better. The health facilities and care providers are now mostly in place, we just need to make the system work. We have vocational schools and community colleges with training as their core services; we just need to make them more productive and a good deal more imaginative.

But before we can entertain a notion of public policy and public institutions playing a more useful role in the economy, we have to acknowledge the corrosive role of local corruption and its history here, some of it attached directly to the war on poverty itself. There are reasons so many public programs fall short of their intended mark, and one of them is tolerance of malfeasance. A pal of mine was elected county executive some years back. He decided to have a county wide fish fry. He called up the wholesale butcher in the next county and asked for a price for catfish for the celebration. They told him $4,800. We are a small county and that sounded like a lot of fish. He asked, “ Are you crazy?” Then they said, they had not realized he wanted a real price. They thought he wanted one with his kickback already figured in.  After all he was a county judge.

Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District has the lowest “well-being” in the nation, according to a study by Gallup measuring wealth and health, both physical and mental. With redistricting, the boundary of KY-5 has changed somewhat. See the new district here.
In Worlds Apart, Cynthia M. Duncan’s book about the prevalence of rural poverty, she compares a county in chronically poor east Kentucky with a similarly poor county in the Mississippi Delta and a more prosperous county in New England. She concludes that educational attainment is the great advantage the prosperous county has over the poorer two, but she also points out that a culture of local corruption in many poor counties in the coalfields and in the Delta contributed to the disparity and their ultimate dysfunction. Poor counties may not have had all the resources they wanted or even needed, but often counties that should be financially stable fell further and further behind because they tolerated or even embraced long established patterns of systemic corruption. And whether that corruption shows up in kickbacks and graft or in more benign forms like nepotism and lowered institutional standards, it has a real cost for communities seeking to do better.

We know we have too often turned our backs on shady characters and accepted underperforming officials in public life here in east Kentucky. Without that reform, other efforts to right the ship will always be vulnerable. We can’t afford to subsidize failed systems. And none of what I will suggest here will work unless it is accompanied by vigilance against local corruption.

So how about this? We organize our economy around what has gone wrong. Then we fix it ourselves. It can be a plan for repair and restoration.

There is a reason we are last on the wealth index. We are poor. Instead of creating jobs for ourselves, investing our talents, we have become the very end of the industrial chain that extracts energy to create power to fuel economies in the rest of the world. We have sacrificed much of the land and many hard working people to help create wealth, but that wealth did not accumulate here. We can keep doing the same thing that got us to the bottom, but we should not expect that the results are going to change.

Rather we can think of what we have left, as ravaged and kicked around as it is, and invest in what it could be. We have mountains that can be rebuilt. We have streams that can be cleaned up. And because every place in the country that has valued its mountains and streams more than they valued screwing them up is now richer than we are, we can imagine a future that is better than what we have today.

Coal mining and the timber industry have extracted enormous wealth out of Appalachia, but provided little in the way of health care, housing and educational benefits for the people of the region.

State and local policies now favor a kind of industrial future that most closely resembles where we have been and what other rural communities have tried and failed to do with industrial recruitment. We can change those policies. We can seek advantages for local contractors and businesses that will employ the legions of miners who have lost their jobs in the last 12 years. That approach can mean creating systematic advantages on bids and contracts for biologists that deal with restoring endangered species and re-investing state severance tax revenues in sustainable and renewable strategies for redevelopment, including redeployment of severance taxes to endow smart growth funds. It also can mean looking to the billions of dollars in conservancy funds set aside to purchase and protect American wilderness.

There is a reason that our life expectancy is at the very bottom of the list. We are sick. We have the nation’s highest rates of diabetes and abnormally high incidence of several preventable cancers, including lung and cervical cancer. We have epidemic rates of drug addiction. I live in a town of 1,500 with seven pharmacies. We can make a difference if we invest our talents in improving public health and the life expectancy of our kids. Other communities, rich and poor, have done that with success around the world. Places get healthier when the people who live in them make informed choices about what they put in their bodies, and when the communities themselves are committed to better health. Those steps improve the workforce and change how families use their resources. When communities demand better health care from hospitals and clinics, a secondary result is that more people can be treated locally, and the economic engine of the health care industry works locally and not just in urban commercial centers that are geared up to profit from our illnesses.

There is a reason that our mental outlook stares from the bottom of national assessments. We are crazy. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We continue in a protracted downward spiral in the coalfields searching for someone we can blame for our troubles: this president, the EPA, people who want clean air and water, but certainly not our own choices. Though the handwriting is on the wall for coal here — and written again in large type by those analysts who cover the energy industry — we don’t change course. Though politicians will acknowledge the business realities privately, in public they return to demagoguery.

Last month there was an anti-EPA rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, attended by more than 1,000 people and key members of the state legislature. Our leaders made voluminous threats and spit fire about 16 strip mining permits that were denied because they would allow surface mining that endangered valleys and streams. No one mentioned that over the same time period the agency had approved 2,500 new mining permits and, further, that the reserves of already mined but unsold coal sat at a 30-year peak. Maybe this is where the overprescribed psychoactive drugs kick in. We are able to ignore facts about natural gas replacing coal in the market, the ever declining need for miners, and all manner of scientific data about carbon’s role in climate change. 

A pro-coal rally in Pikeville, KY, June 7, 2012.

We keep betting on coal in part because we are told by every lousy official and 100,000 tax-payer-subsidized bumper stickers that coalmining is our future, that, in essence, without it we don’t have a shot. The fast food outlets display kids for coal signs on the drive-through windows, and 50,000 license plates tell us that “Coal keeps the lights on.” We hold out hope that coal will come back and that this time it will bring with it broad prosperity — unlike what happened in the ‘40s, the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, or the ‘00s.

It is both convenient and comforting to believe that coal can save us because it confirms a story we have always been told. If we dig deep enough, we will get out of this hole. The idea of taking our bag of talents and facing the open marketplace is terrifying. Think what all could go wrong. And when our politicians loudly rally the masses claiming that there is a “war on coal,” we are encouraged to believe that we must stand shoulder to shoulder behind them, because as they point out, there is a world of people just over the horizon that hates us and is out to get us and wants to change our way of life. It is much more emotionally satisfying to think we are despised than to realize that folks over the mountain barely know we exist. Paranoia is a reliable part of crazy.

I do not know for sure how we improve our mental health, but there may be a lesson to learn from the South Africans after apartheid. They had done some things that made them far crazier than we are and they figured out how to come around. After generations of systemic racism, internal warfare and unspeakable government-sanctioned excesses, the country changed direction and changed its economy, but the South Africans realized they also needed to change their outlook (mental health). They came up with Truth and Reconciliation hearings around the country.

The idea was that too many people had gone way over the line. What had begun as a racial lie turned into a code of conduct, and then into an international humanitarian disaster. So many people had done so many things wrong that you could never punish them all, and if you tried, that would be all you would have time and energy to do. The South Africans would become prisoners of the prisoners they had taken. That newly reborn nation had the challenge of moving forward, disposing of the decades of deceit and somehow rehabilitating the outliers whether they were just misguided patriots or self-serving creeps. The public solution was to give everyone a chance to come forward and tell the truth. Irrespective of the crime committed, all the accused or merely suspected were given the opportunity to come forward, to tell the truth, and in the end to be absolved so the country could move on together. It was not easy to admit what you had done wrong or even that it was wrong, but there was the opportunity for public growth and repair, even reconciliation for those who did.

Matt Wasson/Appalachian Voices
Runoff of contaminated water below a partially “reclaimed” strip mine in Magoffin County, KY.

That is what we need now in the coalfields: candor. We have done a lot of damage to the land and the people. If we continue to lead people astray, to believe things that we know in our bones are lies, to stand by as a culture of corruption infects our genuine prospects for moving forward, then we are going to get crazier. And if we refuse to acknowledge the reality of where we currently stand, then we don’t have much of a shot hanging on here. Prisons for $300 million are small potatoes compared to the jail we will have already put ourselves in. There are tried and true ways to escape poverty, but we have to try them before we can make them true. Sometimes the proper response is courage. And sometimes the safest way forward is taking the greatest risk.

Dee Davis, a native of Hazard, KY, is the president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. He lives in Whitesburg, KY.

Share This:


News Briefs