Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson flew to eastern Kentucky to declare his War on Poverty. That led to the flow of millions of dollars into this regin with the expressed purpose of reducing poverty by attacking the root causes of it.
This week another president from the Democratic Party — Barack Obama — declared an eight-county region in southeastern Kentucky a “Promise Zone,” the latest presidential effort to tackle poverty in targeted areas.
Here’s hoping President Obama’s efforts to eliminate poverty in this region are more successful than LBJ’s War on Poverty. While this region certainly has much better highways and a greatly improved infrastructure than it did in 1964, poverty still remains a serious problem that threatens to get much worse with the loss of hundreds of high-paying coal mining jobs that many area residents blame on the policies promoted by President Obama. That’s surely one reason why this president did not follow the lead of President Johnson by coming to Appalachian Kentucky to announce his new anti-poverty program.
The eight southeastern Kentucky counties that form a Promise Zone are Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Whitley.
The Promise Zone in Kentucky is one of five President Obama has announced, The other four are in San Antonio, Texas; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. All except the Promise Zones in Kentucky and Oklahoma are in urban areas with different causes of poverty than rural areas.
“I’m pleased the administration has decided to grant eastern Kentucky the Promise Zone designation it deserves,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said in a statement Wednesday. “I wrote a letter last year supporting this designation because this region has suffered enormous economic hardship over the last several years. Thousands of jobs have been lost and economic opportunity is extremely limited, particularly because of this administration’s hostile policies toward the coal industry.”
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear also wrote a letter supporting Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.’s application for the program.
“As we know, there is no single solution to the many challenges facing eastern Kentucky; rather, any meaningful plan will require a broad combination of efforts to transform the economy of this region,” Beshear said in a statement. “The Promise Zone is a very exciting and important component of that path for success that will make an accelerated positive impact on the future of Appalachia.”
The announcement of the eastern Kentucky Promise Zone comes just weeks after more than 1,500 area leaders gathered in Pikeville for the first Save Our Appalachian Region conference organized by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Beshear. Just as a governor, a Democrat and Rogers, a Republican who is dean of Kentucky’s congressional delegation, were able to put aside their political differences to organize SOAR, maybe leaders from both parties can work together to help the Promise Zone initiative succeed.
McConnell could not resist taking a dig at President Obama’s coal policies in praising of the Promise Zone in Kentucky. However, we don’t think coal represents the best promise for brighter economic times in this region. Instead, we think it will be what the Promise Zone does to promote a stronger regional economy far less dependent on coal.