About Poverty in Kentucky

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Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the entire country. Eastern Kentucky is one of the hardest-hit countries, where children are among the most vulnerable people in poverty. Disappointed by what they see around them, a sense of hopelessness develops at a young age, and if the loop continues, they will fall into the same pit as their parents and grandparents have, or are already experiencing. Several efforts have stepped up in recent years to assist poor children in breaking the loop and establishing stable lives for themselves. Federal as well as state initiatives aimed at improving education and attempting to get more people off welfare and back to work are helping to curb the problems of engrained poverty but the problem is still a daunting one. Eastern Kentucky continues to be caught in the grip of poverty because there is no quick fix for breaking the cycle that has gone on for generations as illustrated by the epidemic of drug addiction, alcoholism and the dependence on welfare just to survive.

Looking at the poverty that grips eastern Kentucky, one must first look to history to understand from where this cycle began. Per the research of Kathleen Anne Pickering, the loss of employment in eastern Kentucky can be traced back to the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the closing of the coal mines in the 1970’s (Pickering, 2006). These two events more than anything else were what caused the current situation. The Great Depression began a downward spiral which culminated with the loss of the regions number one employers, the coal mining companies. As Pickering points out, many people moved away to find work elsewhere leaving behind a generation that has struggled “to eke out an existence in a very depressed local economy” (Pickering, 2006). One noteworthy point, the people who moved out of Kentucky to find work elsewhere often return to their native areas after they retire with pensions and social security benefits which are used as “an important part of the extended family support system, which is almost certain to decline as they die” (Pickering, 2006). As a wrap, up of the reasons why poverty still grips eastern Kentucky years after the tragedies of the past have faded into memory, Pickering (2006) notes “lifestyles resist change” explaining that children tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

However, out of all this seemingly bad news, there is a spirit to thrive and survive in Kentucky that keeps the people striving to succeed even in the face of what sometimes seems to be insurmountable problems. In 2007, Diane Sawyer of ABC News’ weekly information program 20/20, entitled “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” reported that despite the overwhelming poverty that is prevalent in eastern Kentucky where over 500,000 struggle with poverty daily, there are stories of hope and courage by the children living in these sometimes-abhorred conditions. One such story, which Sawyer reported upon during the program, was that of 17-year-old high school senior, Sean Grim. Sean is a star athlete who pours his heart out each time he sets foot on the playing field and always gives 100% to his team. Despite having to move out of his family home and live in his truck to escape his stepfather’s alcoholism and what he described as “constant fighting” (ABC News, 2007), Sean has a goal of getting his high school diploma, the first one in his family to do so, and go on to college. Sean did go on to earn his high school diploma and was given a full athletic scholarship to a nearby college but after only 8 weeks in school, the pressures of school and being poorer than his classmates along with not having the money for food, necessities and entertainment, forced him to quit school and go back home where his dreams are still on hold. Sean’s story is indicative of how growing up in poverty affects children and forces them to make life choices that a more affluent student would never have to deal with.

In Kentucky, the state department of education has taken great strides to improve educational opportunities for those who need it most. This effort started with the Kentucky Educational Reform Act of 1990. With the passage of this legislation “the Kentucky Department of Education began requiring that public schools make annual assessments of academic progress at various grade levels” (Maume & Arrighi, 2007). Prior to the passage of this law, Kentucky lawmakers did not routinely give much thought as to how much poverty affected scholastic results. Another measure which followed the Kentucky measure, the 2002 No Child Left Behind initiative mandated that the learning gap between those children in low-income families with those of more affluent households. Part of the No Child Left Behind Act, just like the Kentucky law, was the mandated yearly testing of achievement results for all public schools to help close the learning gap that exists between low-income districts and those of better means. However, in the federal program schools in the individual states are still left free to decide what system is best for them in accomplishing this objective. Maume and Arrighi (2007) make the point that “Oddly enough, in education where the welfare of children is taken very seriously, poverty is too often ignored—as if this were a form of adversity that ought to be overcome—or is recognized but then dealt with ineffectively.”

A grassroots program which addresses the health and well-being of some of eastern Kentucky’s poorest kids is the Harrison Healthy Kids Center located in Lexington, Kentucky. The center, a collaborative effort between “physical/menta1 health, dental health, health education, the public-school system and community resources” (Simpson & Young, 1998), serves kindergarten through 5th grade students. The students in the school are of a group with many high-risk indicators such as “domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, indigent as well as underinsured families, homelessness, inadequate education among parents, and learning difficulties among students” (Simpson & Young, 1998). These circumstances make the student population one of the most at risk groups in the area. However, with the cooperation and collaboration between so many grassroots agencies, there have been great strides made in remedying some of the most pressing problems which the children face. The center provides a parent liaison position which is designed to conduct outreach to parents and conduct home visits to “inform a parent of their child’s illness and needs to be picked up from school, obtaining medical consents or other necessary paperwork, or to refer them for access to transportation” (Simpson & Young, 1998). The liaison work accomplished provides a vital communication link to parents who do not have phones and with knowledge of local facilities can provide assistance to parents with healthcare issues.

What is not considered in a lot of even the most well-meaning programs, is the fact that breaking the cycle of poverty itself is probably the single most difficult obstacle for people to overcome. Per research by Pickering (2006), the welfare programs of the past were a virtual trap for a lot of the young people who are now trying to escape from the continuing cycle of poverty. Pickering (2006) notes “What these details do not reveal is the struggles of young parents trying to break free from their own childhoods of poverty.” Citing several reasons for the difficulties that young people today face including the fact that “their parents were divorced or never married, and most of their parents never finished high school” (Pickering, 2006), Pickering makes the point that breaking the poverty cycle is tough. Pickering (2006) also notes that “Substance abuse and family violence were all too common in their childhood homes.”

However, there are programs like the Eastern Kentucky Project (Project) and Blair Development Association (BDA) which are addressing the lack of suitable employment issue with a unique solution (Anglin, 2002). Both efforts cover the area around Blair County, Kentucky. Per the Project founder, Joan Allen, the founding goal of the Project “was to help people find jobs, so that they would feel better about themselves” (as cited in Anglin, 2002, p. 573). From this simple goal, the Project has created several small businesses, some of which have been in operation for more than a decade, which are responsive to the local community and the needs of its residents. One such resident, Rose Palmer, was told by the Kentucky Department of Social Services to sign up for Social Security Disability Insurance because she functionally disabled by having only a 3rd grade education. Instead, she went to the Project to obtain backing to open a small restaurant. Palmer has made a success and has been quoted as saying “"my children are going to be two times better off than I was when I growed up" (as cited in Anglin, 2002, p. 573). This, per Anglin (2002), is because “they will inherit homes purchased with proceeds from the restaurant” (p. 573).

The BDA has also assisted the local community by providing locally-based initiatives such as “a credit union organized for the working poor, and agricultural cooperatives working to reduce farmers' reliance on tobacco as the primary cash crop for the area” and in addition to this the BDA “provides financial support to countywide recycling and clean-up programs, a program that draws on local labor and contributions to repair Blair County homes” (Anglin, 2002). Kathleen Lewis, BDA’s founder puts it this way, “BDA enable[s] citizens of Blair County to achieve self-empowerment, sustain community development, and enrich their quality of life" (as cited in Anglin, 2002, p. 574).

Recently, according to Kentucky Kids Count, an annual report released by Kentucky Youth Advocates, “child poverty in Kentucky continues to be a stubborn problem that has changed little in recent years” (Yetter, 2015). Yetter notes that as of 2015, “about one-quarter of Kentucky's youths under age 18 live in poverty” and goes on to note sadly that this statistic has changed little in the 25 years that the Kentucky Youth Advocates have been producing this yearly report. In her reporting, Yetter spoke with the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, Terry Brooks, who laments that fact that “there is a sense in Kentucky that this [child poverty] is accepted” and stated, “We really have to confront an attitude that there's nothing we can do about it [child poverty]” (Yetter, 2015). Other concerning factors noted in the Kids Count report were; “1) About half of Kentucky children enter kindergarten not ready to learn, 2) About one-fifth of pregnant women smoke, putting them at greater risk of having an underweight baby more susceptible to health and developmental problems, 3) One-third of Kentucky's children live in single parent families, and 4) about one-fifth of high school students don't graduate on time” (Yetter, 2015).

In her article Yetter also spoke with Yvette Livers, executive director of South Louisville Community Ministries, who elaborated on the factors of poverty which affect children the most as compared to more affluent children. Livers stated children of poor families “live with the stress of parents struggling to make ends meet, living from check to check, and they find themselves shut out of opportunities and advantages enjoyed by children in more prosperous households” (as cited in Yetter, 2015). This has the effect of making children lose hope that their situation will ever change. Livers went on to note “Poverty has a big impact on self-esteem, you see what you cannot do instead of what the opportunities are” (Yetter, 2015). Of all the detrimental effects that poverty has on youth, this is probably one of the most devastating because it hits at the core of what a child feels is his or her own worth as a person and it affects almost every other facet of what the child tries to do in life.

What is apparent in all the information presented in this paper is that poverty and the mindset that it creates, is a very tough foe. People who spend generation after generation in poverty tend to lose the spark of life that drives most of us to push forward and achieve success. Self-esteem is affected to the point where people feel that they are worthless and they give up trying. Poverty is not so much a condition of financial status in eastern Kentucky as it is a state of mind and a lifestyle. Some will contend that people in poverty need to merely stop being lazy and just get themselves back to work through their own initiative. As noted above, this is easier said than done when poverty becomes endemic and engrained on the psyche of people who take it for granted that their situation is hopeless and it is better to seek a hand out than a hand up. Unfortunately for people in poverty, a hand out is all that they usually get from government agencies which are either ill-equipped to handle the problem or are ignorant of the causes and wish to only treat the symptoms. What the people in poverty in Kentucky need is reassurance that they are valuable persons along with gainful and lasting employment which is available but is in seriously short supply. Sadly, until the federal government gets on board with this small piece of advice, little is likely to change for the people of eastern Kentucky and other depressed parts of America.


ABC News. (2007) Hidden America: Children of the Mountains. [Video file], Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lKx26ve1H8.

Anglin, M. (2002). Lessons from Appalachia in the 20th Century: Poverty, Power, and the "Grassroots" American Anthropologist, 104(2), 565-582. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/684006.

Maume, D. J., & Arrighi, B. A. (2007) Child Poverty in America Today. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Praeger Perspectives. EBSCOhost, Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=218187&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Pickering, K. A. (2006). Welfare Reform in Persistent Rural Poverty: Dreams, Disenchantments, and Diversity. Penn State University Press, 2006. Rural Studies Series. EBSCOhost, Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=168143&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Simpson, K., & Young, T. (1998). Health Service Applications. The Harrison Healthy Kids Center: A Comprehensive Elementary School-Based Health Program. Journal of School Health, 68(3), 116-119. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.1998.tb03496.x

Yetter, D. (2015). Child Poverty Stubborn in Kentucky; Report Shows. Louisville Courier-Journal website. Retrieved from http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2015/11/15/child-poverty-stubborn-ky-report-shows/75457416/.


December 15, 2022

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