Friday, June 27, 2014

Persistent (rural) poverty featured in the NY Times Magazine

Annie Lowery's report in this week-end's Magazine is headlined "What's the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?" In it Lowery fingers Clay County, Kentucky as "dead last"…"statistically speaking" among all counties in the United States.  As Lowery expresses it, Clay County "might as well be a different country."  Here's the lede:
There are many tough places in this country: the ghost cities of Detroit, Camden and Gary, the sunbaked misery of inland California and the isolated reservations where Native American communities were left to struggle. But in its persistent poverty, Eastern Kentucky — land of storybook hills and drawls ­ — just might be the hardest place to live in the United States. 
Clay County, population 21,634, only slightly edges out five other Eastern Kentucky counties for last place.  Those other counties are Breathitt (population 13,545), Jackson (population 13,427), Lee (population 7,260), Leslie (population 11,019) and Magoffin (population 12,950).

Here are some of the sobering metrics about Clay County:
  • Median household income:  $22,296, which is just above the poverty line and just over half the nationwide median. 
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor's degree or higher:  7.4% 
  • Disability rate:  11.7%, compared to a national figure of 1.3%
  • Life expectancy:  six years shorter than the national average
  • Obesity rate:  nearly half
Lowery doesn't mention that the county's poverty rate is 34.5%.  Nor does she note that the county's population is 92.7% non-Hispanic white and just 4.4% African American.  In other words, this story is a different spin not only on place and poverty, but also--at least implicitly--on race and poverty. (I have occasionally complained on these pages about media failure to depict white poverty and to collapse the poverty problem into the racism problem.  See also this post on The Root making a similar point).

I do appreciate Lowery calling attention to rural poverty which, as she notes, is so often overlooked.  
The public debate about the haves and the have-nots tends to focus on the 1 percent, especially on the astonishing, breakaway wealth in cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington and the great disparities contained therein. But what has happened in the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh — the Deep South and Appalachia — is in many ways as remarkable as what has happened in affluent cities. In some places, decades of growth have failed to raise incomes, and of late, poverty has become more concentrated not in urban areas but in rural ones.
Lowery's story is very much about rural restructuring and how it has left places like Eastern Kentucky worse off in many ways than 50 years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson went there to declare his "War on Poverty." But beyond the rural restructuring backdrop--which in Appalachia is largely about the decline of coal (read more here, here and here)--Lowery also queries what should be done about, in, and for places like Clay County:  
[R]ural poverty is largely shunted aside in the conversation about inequality, much in the way rural areas have been left behind by broader shifts in the economy. The sheer intractability of rural poverty raises uncomfortable questions about how to fix it, or to what extent it is even fixable.
And, she gives material spatiality its due:
In many cases, a primary problem in poor rural areas is the very fact that they’re rural — remote, miles from major highways and plagued by substandard infrastructure. Think about the advantages of urban areas, described by thinkers going back to Jane Jacobs and beyond. Density means more workers to choose from, more potential customers, more spillover knowledge from nearby companies. As such, cities punch above their weight, economically speaking. 
In light of that, Lowery queries whether it makes sense to focus on investments in people rather than in places?  Lowery suggests that it does, acknowledging that one challenge is the immobility of the poor.  (That was an issue in this blog post from earlier in the month…) Then, too, there's the tricky politics of promoting and facilitating out-migration.
Imagine Senator Mitch McConnell running for re-election on the campaign slogan: “I’ll get you out of this moribund area and up to the wilderness of North Dakota!”
And that, at least implicitly, acknowledges rural attachment to place … which brings us to Lowery's quote from Jeff Whitehead, who helps retrain laid-off coal miners through the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
There’s just very limited opportunity for the people who were working in the region. …[Moving away is] a really hard pill to swallow. People are really connected to place here. For a lot of people, it’s the last thing they’re doing. They’re holding off until they have no other choice.
Whitehead says he has helped 220 families move away from the region in recent years.

A story related to Lowery's report is "Where are the Hardest Places to Live in the U.S.?" from the New York Times Upshot.  There, Alan Flippen lists the four other counties rounding out the nation's "bottom ten."
I have included the demographic information from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that each of these counties--in contrast with those in Eastern Kentucky--is predominantly African-American.

Flippen's story also features a cool interactive, county-level map. Like Lowery, Flippen provides some explicit rural-urban contrast by comparing Clay County with Wayne County, Michigan, home of Detroit: 
Not a single major urban county ranks in the bottom 20 percent or so on this scale [of six metrics], and when you do get to one — Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit — there are some significant differences. While Wayne County’s unemployment rate (11.7 percent) is almost as high as Clay County’s, and its life expectancy (75.1 years) and obesity rate (41.3 percent) are also similar, almost three times as many residents (20.8 percent) have at least a bachelor’s degree, and median household income ($41,504) is almost twice as high.
But Flippen also does a rural-rural comparison--or more precisely a nonmetrolitan-to-nonmetrpolitan one--between Clay County and Los Alamos County, New Mexico, the top county based on the combination of metrics.  Los Alamos County is home of Los Alamos National Laboratory and just 18,000 residents, and its poverty rate is just 4.9%:
Only 7.4 percent of Clay County residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, while 63.2 percent do in Los Alamos. The median household income in Los Alamos County is $106,426, almost five times what the median Clay County household earns. In Clay County, 12.7 percent of residents are unemployed, and 11.7 percent are on disability; the corresponding figures in Los Alamos County are 3.5 percent and 0.3 percent. Los Alamos County’s obesity rate is 22.8 percent, while Clay County’s is 45.5 percent. And Los Alamos County residents live 11 years longer, on average — 82.4 years vs. 71.4 years in Clay County.
It's an interesting contrast between two types of rural places--one reflecting a sort of gentrification (Los Alamos County is contiguous to upscale Santa Fe and Sandoval counties …but also not that far from Rio Arriba (19.3% poverty rate), San Juan (20.4% poverty), and McKinley (33.5% poverty) counties, for which the metrics are not very favorable) and the other reflecting old-fashioned rural poverty in a resource/extraction dependent county where the jobs have moved on.  Ironically, though, both counties are highly dependent on the federal government--Los Alamos County for jobs (1 in 5 residents are employed at the national lab) and Clay County for disability, Medicaid, and other federal and state benefits.  Indeed, the USDA ERS classifies the economies of both as "federal-state government dependent."  Hmmm.  In one, the government provides good jobs, and people with good educations move to the place for those jobs.  In the other, the government provides something of a handout, even as it fails to address structural deficits or invest in rural economic development.  Clearly, the latter is not a strategy that's working for Clay County.

1 comment:

Doctoralbilly said...

One thing slightly askew about Lowery's introduction: at least three of the five counties named are not exactly in (her phrase) "coal country" in that they don't contain an extant coal operation. For a long time now, eastern KY's poorest counties are found on the fringes of the modern coal fields, close enough to commute, but far away enough to make it costly. Some of the longest average daily commutes in the US are found in central Appalachia, thus popularity of "drill baby drill" in 2008 and PART of the reason for historically Democratic stalwart counties (like Breathitt and Magoffin) making a big political switch. -Bob Hutton, University of TN History