Former University of Kentucky president, Lee Todd, coined the term “Kentucky Uglies” to describe the state’s rear-end rankings on lists of most things good and blue-ribbon placement on indicators measuring most things bad. The exceptions are in college hoops and horse racing — but few are content with our state having only those two things on the ball.
We have made tremendous strides in education and addressing our drug abuse epidemic and other struggles, but there’s always more to do. Policymakers, educators, the business community, churches, charities, and average Joes and Janes often express to me what I’ve rephrased in this five-word question: “Can Kentucky ever “break bad?”
Many believe poverty is the root of the ills besetting our commonwealth. Recent U.S. Census Bureau data finds that more than one in four Kentucky children lives in poverty. The nation may ‘have a cold’ in lean economic times, but pockets of Kentucky have caught and are keeping ‘pneumonia.’
The limping national economy has taken its toll on public, private, and individual coffers the last few years, but the plight of the perennially poor in Kentucky has long been a focus of national and state media and those they quote and source. And so it was last weekend in the New York Times Sunday Review by columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof presented a narrative of poor families in Breathitt County, Ky., who withdrew their children from literacy classes out of fear they’d no longer qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly government check to parents of a child with an intellectual disability.
The report and Kristof’s commentary about it stoked a response from the Bluegrass state’s leading child advocacy group, Kentucky Youth Advocates. In a rebuttal headlined:“Don’t Pull the Net Out from Children,” author Katie Carter supports Kristof’s rally for more investment in early childhood education programs as a remedy.
But Carter defends the need for safety net programs and scoffs at hints there’s widespread abuse of public assistance. Carter writes “In Kentucky, the families of 29,922 children with disabilities received cash assistance through SSI in 2011. For context, there are a little over one million children in Kentucky, and there were over 100,000 students with some sort of disability in 2010. While any cases of holding a child back from achieving their full potential are disheartening, the data hardly suggest rampant overuse.”
Poverty is complex. It’s situational, generational, geographical, race-based, structural, and behavioral, according to Dr. James “Ike” Adams, the dean of the University Of Kentucky College Of Social Work. We talked about poverty in Kentucky during our “Connections” taping this past September.
“African Americans and people of color are disproportionately beset by poverty, similar to Appalachian regions heavily reliant on a mono-economy,” says Adams. Adams, an Alabama import, now a three-year Kentucky resident, described the Appalachian areas of the state as suffering from structural poverty. “There are simply not enough jobs to accommodate all those who need one,” he adds.
Terry Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates said during that same program, that 47 counties in Kentucky are labeled as ‘persistently poor,’ meaning those places have been economically distressed for at least 30 years.
Brooks believes many Kentucky families are working jobs that don’t create bright economic futures. “No state in the country has more children living in homes where neither parent has secure employment, meaning full-time and year-round,” laments Brooks. “It’s not because mom is at home watching Oprah eating bonbons; instead it’s mom holding not one, not two, but three jobs — all part-time, all minimum wage and none with benefits,” he adds.
There are more layers to poverty than what I’ve laid out here, and different, disparate opinions on why it exists and if/how much government should help. Bill Goodman and I are planning a special program in January about this, entitled “The Price of Poverty in Kentucky.” We’ll both keep you in the loop on that special broadcast. It’s one none of us can afford to miss.