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the region today


Central Appalachia is a region full of assets and opportunities. We have a rich cultural history of music, arts and storytelling. We are blessed with beautiful, valuable and ecologically diverse mountains, forests and thousands of miles of waterways. Our state and national parks, reserves and refuges are among the best in the country, and they protect some of the most threatened species in the world. We have talented people and strong institutions that are working toward a brighter future, including community and private colleges, effective entrepreneurs and small businesses, elected officials, faith leaders and nonprofits. Youth from the region are starting to see these assets as real opportunities and are trying to reverse Appalachia's regional diaspora. The region has much to be proud of and to build from.


These and other assets help define who we are. But they exist in a region that is also saddled with real challenges.


Appalachia's economy is rapidly changing. Increased natural gas production, decreased coal reserves, tougher regulations and other market forces have forced coal production into steep decline. Nearly 6,000 coal-mining jobs have been lost in eastern Kentucky from 2012 to mid-2013,  a decline of 42 percent.


People in the region are facing some very hard truths as the economic landscape around them changes. But the reality is that the entire area — both in the coalfields and out — face many more longstanding challenges than the recent job loss. These include the following.

• The Appalachian Regional Commission has identified 50 of the 54 Appalachian Kentucky counties as distressed or at-risk, and poverty rates reach as high as 40 percent in Owsley County. By median household income, Appalachian Kentucky contains six of the poorest 30 counties in the nation. By contrast, the economy of many other parts of Appalachia has improved to become more like the rest of the country.


• Eastern Kentucky's economy is dominated by low-wage service jobs, with per capita income in Appalachian Kentucky at just $16,768 in 2009, or 51 percent of the U.S. average.


• Educational attainment in the region is low. For the nation as a whole, 85 percent of residents have completed high school and 28 percent have completed college. In Appalachian Kentucky, only 72 percent have a high school diploma and just 13 percent have a college degree.


• The region consistently contains greater-than-average levels of a variety of health problems. Eastern Kentucky's 5th congressional district recently ranked last among all 436 congressional districts in the health index of the American Human Development Project. Access to healthcare is inadequate and many counties struggle with a shortage of healthcare professionals.


• Prescription drug abuse is a pervasive problem that has reached epidemic proportions in Central Appalachia. Eastern Kentucky counties saw the most overdose deaths in the state as a proportion of their populations in 2011 and 2012 – anywhere from 39 to 85 percent out of every 100,000 people, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.


• For many, civic trust has been eroded through decades of cronyism, nepotism and corruption, both large and small.  


Coal production and employment have been on a thirty-year decline, and the reality is that they are unlikely to return to past levels. Several issues complicate the future.


• Western coal is significantly less expensive then central Appalachian coal and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.


• Many of the cheaper to access seams of eastern Kentucky coal have been depleted.


• Demand for thermal coal is on decline, the predominate form of coal extracted in the region.


• Over the next 10 years, key coal fired-power plants that historically purchased eastern Kentucky coal are slated to convert to natural gas or close.


For many in the region, coal has provided meaningful wages, the ability to support a family and a deep and very real sense of pride and purpose. Mining coal has been an important, hard and dangerous way to earn a living. Many see it as representing a culture of hard-work and commitment to history and place.


There also exists clear evidence of serious environmental harm from its extraction and use, strong and protectionist links between the industry and local elected officials, and a growing body of data about human health problems. Today's concerns about climate change have raised anxieties about the role of coal across the globe.


There are real tensions across the state and within eastern Kentucky between the economic and cultural importance of coal and the political and environmental challenges it presents. Regardless, given its decline and the state of the region's economy, it is clear many people and communities are in desperate need for new jobs and economic opportunities.


The recent fate of the coal industry, combined with long-term challenges that face the region as a whole, have created new urgency in Kentucky's Appalachian communities. It's time to find ways to get more people involved in creating the future they want, working for that change and then ensuring the results are carried out. To MACED, that means we have to find ways to grow the conversation about the future, create a vision to reach that future and support leaders who will take us there.