Floyd County, Kentucky: Hardship, uncertainty and hope characterize life in the coal field of the 'Country Boys'

January 2006

By Amy Glasmeier, Penn State Geography’s E. Willard Miller Professor of Economic Geography; the Appalachian Regional Commision’s John Whisman Appalachian Scholar Editor; Economic Geography Director, Penn State Environmental Inquiry Minor; currently on leave at the Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire; Web site http://www.povertyinamerica.psu.edu.

In the PBS "Frontline" special, Country Boys (click here to watch or get more details), film maker David Sutherland tells the story of the hardship, uncertainty, and hope that faces two teenagers growing up in Floyd County, Kentucky. Hardship, uncertainty and hope are words that characterize the life of many children in rural America who live in regions with few economic opportunities, little steady employment, and limited parental support and encouragement. In the first two parts of the documentary, we are introduced to the young men and their families, girlfriends, teachers, and mentors. We also receive a bird’s-eye view of life in Floyd County. Floyd is located in the rugged Cumberland Plateau region of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield. Prestonsburg, the seat of Floyd County, is located on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. For a physiographic map with county lines, click here. Floyd County is directly west of Pike County, the large county that forms the eastern tip of Kentucky.

from "Frontline" Web site

Like many other parts of the East Kentucky Coal Field, many of Floyd County’s residents brush up against but are largely unrewarded by their location in a region rich in natural resources. The county was home to 10 coal towns in the early 20th Century, but mechanization and strip mining since the mining heyday of the 1940s have made it possible to produce as much coal as before with many fewer workers. Poverty in Floyd is twice the state average and almost three times the national rate (30% versus 15% versus 12%, respectively). Today, the county’s economy is largely moribund, with public services that include health care and education comprising the largest sources of employment. Such an economy works because payments from taxes translate into incomes that are paid to local residents who work in the public schools and social services agencies. Money earned in the county is either immediately consumed or leaks out to outside businesses linked to consumption, such as the Taco Bell restaurant in which Chris worked. The largest private employment sector is retail trade, where work pays just above poverty line wages for a family of four. Income has grown negligibly over the last 10 years and is well below the rate of inflation.

A quick tour through the county’s basic statistics provides a stark picture of the context in which Chris and Cody reside. Their world is comprised of many challenges, the least of which is a dwindling population, a population aging in place, a large number of persons of working age outside of the labor force due in part to persistently high levels of unemployment, and education levels that depart significantly from Kentucky and national trends. Other facts about the local economy serve to reinforce the message that a long-standing lack of economic opportunity, combined with the accompanying economic uncertainty, wears on and ultimately shapes individual aspirations.

And yet there is hope. Kids like Cody and Chris are touched by individuals and organizations that provide the support required to overcome obstacles. Family values and religious beliefs are an important structural element in a person’s system of life chances in American communities where economy and society long ago parted ways. To see a regional view of Floyd County click here.

A report from Floyd County

Prestonsburg lawyer John Rosenberg, a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and chairman of the East Kentucky Science Center, says there are other reasons for hope: Big Sandy Community and Technical College, with 3,000 students, where four-year degrees from Morehead State University can be earned; the Science Center, which has "a world-class planetarium," exhibits and equipped classroom ("We hope for Silicon Hollows eventually," Rosenberg says); the Mountain Arts Center, site of many musical and theatrical productions and frequent venue for traveling artists; Stonecrest Golf Course, on top of a former strip-mine site; and several federal and state prisons in the area, which provide steady employment.

Rosenberg also sees "an improving educational system" still too slow in his view, but one in which Betsy Layne High School can produce Governor's Scholars and "forensic competitions which would have been unheard of years ago. . . . So, I think it is worth noting that , in some ways, there are positive changes, although we continue to be economically depressed." For local and regional information from the Big Sandy Area Development District, click here.

Why does poverty persist in Appalachia? Cynthia Mildred "Mil" Duncan of the Carsey Institute, author of the 1999 book Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America. She blames long-term neglect and lack of investment. To read the "Frontline" interview with Duncan, click here.

Major points and links to graphics

Floyd County has been losing population since the 1980s and has declined by 5,000 persons over the last 20 years. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/population.php?cfips=21071

A smaller number of younger persons and a larger number of older persons characterize the basic demographics of the county. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/age.php?cfips=21071

Steep declines are evident in the percentage of the population in the age group 25 years of age and younger. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/age_change.php?cfips=21071

Just over 40% of the working-age population is in the labor force. Almost 32% of the entire population is to some degree disabled. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/labor_force.php?cfips=21071. Also see http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/21/21071.html.

For 20 years, unemployment in the county has been substantially above the state and national levels. Since 1990, unemployment in Floyd has been double the jobless level for the state of Kentucky. For details, go to http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/unemployment.php?cfips=21071.

The lack of economic opportunity greatly diminishes the returns to education; 35 percent of the population of Floyd County lacks a high-school education, more than double the average for the nation as a whole. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/employment.php?cfips=21071

Jobs tend to be in the public sector, or in retail employment -- where wages are low by national standards. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/education.php?cfips=21071

From 1998 to 2003, the county lost more than 1,000 mining jobs while gaining 2,000 in health care and social assistance. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/employment_growth.php?cfips=21071

The county's employment growth has had some spikes but has lagged far behind the state and nation. http://www.economictoolbox.geog.psu.edu/employment_growth_index.php?cfips=21071


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Al Cross, Institute director , al.cross@uky.edu

Last updated: Jan. 13, 2006