Eastern Ky.’s eroding population to shift political borders

Nov 4, 2021

The Woolly Worm Festival is held in Beattyville, Ky.
Credit Ryland Barton

Once a year, children race black and orange woolly worms up taut strings in Beattyville, Ky., goading them to the top by blowing with straws or clapping.

Legend has it you can predict how severe a winter will be by observing the coloration of the 13-segmented caterpillar, really the larval form of the tiger moth.

And people come from far and wide to celebrate the furry oracles during Beattyville’s annual Woolly Worm Festival, when the 1,300-person town in the foothills of Appalachia jumps by about 10,000 people for the weekend.

But Beattyville’s Lee County is one of more than half of Kentucky’s counties that lost population over the last 10 years, dropping by 6.2% according to the decennial Census.

 

  

Most of those counties are in eastern Kentucky. The 5th Congressional District, which encompasses most of the region, lost 5% of its population over the last decade.

And like the woolly worm, predicting exactly how the region will change politically—especially through the redistricting process—is an imperfect art.

Rural Population Loss

No matter what, the political boundaries within the region will change when lawmakers finally tackle redistricting in the upcoming legislative session, as they are required to do every 10 years.

Kentucky’s largest population drop was in Bell County on the Virginia Border. It lost 16% of its population.

Rick Nelson, the mayor of Middlesboro and a former Democratic state legislator, blamed the decline on the evaporating coal industry.

“A lot of the coal miners when they lost their jobs, they moved out, their families moved off to school and just stayed where they were going,” Nelson said.

Nelson was in the legislature from 2001 until 2018. He says he feels like he didn’t do enough to prepare the area.

“Because I just thought coal would be forever,” Nelson said. “I just didn’t think there was no way you could do without coal. And that was always something we were going to be something we could hang our hat on. And I was wrong on that, a lot of people were, too. It didn’t make me feel better because I admit it, but that’s just the way it is.”

Perry County, Ky.
Credit Ryland Barton

Population loss isn’t unique to eastern Kentucky. It’s a trend that affects most rural parts of the state and nation.

But it’s especially pronounced in eastern Kentucky because of the collapse of the coal industry, which dominated the region’s economy for more than a century. Demand for coal plummeted amid cheap natural gas prices and growing awareness of climate change.

The entire industry only employs about 3,900 people in Kentucky now, down from 20,000 ten years ago.

Matt Ruther is the director of the Kentucky State Data Center. He says it’s part of a national, age-old trend: population declining in rural areas and increasing in urban and suburban ones.

“What’s happening is that these counties are aging, so the populations are getting older and there’s fewer births to sort of replace this older population and people are migrating out to where there are more numerous jobs,” Ruther said.

A Changing Region

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, says the coal industry can’t sustain communities in eastern Kentucky anymore.

“We used to think coal was the only thing of value, so we had to exploit it, or timber was all we had, we had to cut down the trees,” Davis said.

Davis says the region needs to embrace economic alternatives like building broadband networks so people can work remotely and connect to markets around the world, raising up local art and culture and strengthening the education system.

“What’s valuable is communities that can work together, what’s valuable are young people who are smart and enterprising and problem-solving. And so in a way, for these communities to thrive we’ve got to have a different attitude about keeping people around and making it a place where people have gone off and done well can find a way to come back and contribute,” Davis said.

A view of Whiteburg, Ky.
Credit Ryland Barton

Statewide, Kentucky’s population increased by 3.8%, with major shifts in population to suburban areas around Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green and northern Kentucky.

Because there are fewer people living in eastern and western Kentucky, legislators will have to shift boundaries of the congressional and legislative districts to keep proportional with the rest of the state.

That likely means the 5th Congressional district in eastern Kentucky will start creeping toward central and northern Kentucky to offset population increases in those areas. And lawmakers will have to consolidate legislative districts in more rural parts of the state.

Rick Nelson, the Middlesboro mayor and former lawmaker, said legislators will have to make some tough decisions.

“I think eastern Kentucky’s going to lose and western Kentucky will lose some and then your population centers, Bowling Green and Northern Kentucky, they’ll gain more and have more influence,” Nelson said.

After securing control of the state House of Representatives in 2016, this will be the first time in Kentucky history, Republicans will be in charge of the redistricting process.

When Democrats controlled the Kentucky House and Republicans controlled the Senate 10 years ago, the redistricting process dragged on through court battles for years.