In 1990, the poverty rate in central rural Appalachia was nearly 27%
Understanding the reasons behind poverty in the Appalachia region is long and complex. Today's high unemployment and low wages in the region stem directly from the historical patterns of concentrated land and mineral ownership and industrial development. When the region was settled in the 1700's land speculators bought up land and mineral rights. These absentee owners extracted coal wealth form the area but this wealth was not used to develop the local area, instead it went to modernize and industrialize the rest of the country. An excellent account of the problems and history of the central Appalachia region can be found in "Night Comes to the Cumberlands" by Harry Claudill.
The Appalachia region was dominated by a small number of coal operators, who kept other industrial development out, so labor costs could be kept low. Recall the examples of company owned housing for workers, company stores where workers would buy tools, clothing, and food and pay for the items with company issued money (script). Naturally wages did not cover all the expenses the company charged the workers. (A good recent film covering these early experiences of family and working conditions in Appalachia was the movie "Matewan.") This single industry domination combined with the rugged mountainous nature of the area kept the region from experiencing the industrialization that the rest of the nation enjoyed.
In 1964 during the War on Poverty, the ARC reported that Appalachia was a distressed region, with low income, high unemployment, lagging in jobs and industrialization. One third of Appalachians lived below the poverty level, earning 23% less than the U.S. average of that time. However Appalachia has changed much from the time of the war on poverty and the formation of the ARC. Great progress has been made throughout the Appalachia region in developing an infrastructure of good highways and interstate access, industrial development zones, and a sound education and health care system. But conditions in the Central Appalachia's still lag the rest of the nation. By 1990 poverty in the Central Appalachia region was still 27%, compared to 13.1% for the rest of the nation. The region still lacks an adequate job base and income levels. Counties in the Central Appalachia's during the 1990's have joined together to form joint economic development zones, in an effort to attract new jobs. This has been somewhat successful for some areas, but attracting industry to locate there is a significant challenge, as they are in competition with many other parts of the country for the same jobs.
The Corbin area has seen much job growth over the past 30 years, mainly due to the presence of the interstate, (and the availability of less mountainous land, for industrial parks). Williamsburg and Harlan have had some success in setting up industrial development parks on land near the interstate or near a modern four-lane divided highway such as 25E from Corbin through Barbourville, Pineville and Middlesborro.
The state development district offices in the Appalachian counties, have played a major role in securing grants for better highways, and monies for cities to upgrade water and sewer systems, and for rural water systems for counties. These infrastructure improvements are key to attracting new industry and the jobs that go with them, into the area.
Still, today, this region of Appalachia lags the rest of the state and the nation in job availability and income. One can directly attribute the high poverty rates in these counties to the lack of employment opportunities. Unless one is willing to commute two-three hours each way, there are just not many jobs to be found in these counties.