Half of working-age residents in Appalachia can’t find jobs

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HINDMAN, Ky. – John Short’s gun shop tends to collect more than deer rifles and double barrels.

Quite the collection of unemployed coal miners also can be found in this popular local hangout whiling away the hours among the rows of firearms, many of which have been pawned to pay bills or buy household necessities.

“We’re devastated; there are just not any jobs left,” Short said, waving his hand toward a group of guys swapping tales. “Half of these men are unemployed.”

In fact, more than half of working age residents in Kentucky’s coalfield counties have been without jobs in recent years, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics that measure actual unemployment.

In nearby Martin County, where President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in 1965, an average of only 26 percent of working-age residents had jobs during a 5-year period beginning in 2009.

Short, a state representative from Hindman, said he sees no signs that the economy is improving in the heart of Kentucky’s coal-mining region more than 50 years after Johnson’s visit.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Workforce Development found in a review of Census data that fewer than 40 percent of Knott County residents ages 16 and up had jobs between 2009 and 2013, revealing that the employment drought is affecting not only adults but also their teenage children who, in other regions, have little trouble finding part-time positions.

The report calculated actual unemployment based on answers to questions on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That survey asks people if they have jobs, when they last had jobs, and if they are currently looking for work.

In more than half of Kentucky’s counties, the report showed, the number of people without jobs exceeded 50 percent. The hardest hit counties were concentrated in the state’s coal-mining regions.

Fewer than 40 percent of residents had jobs in Bell, where 38.4 percent have jobs; Breathitt, 36.9 percent; Clay, 30.5; Elliott, 30.8; Floyd, 39.3; Harlan, 35.5; Knott, 39.1; Knox, 36.9; Lee, 33.8; Leslie, 34.5; Letcher, 38.3; Lyon, 38.2; McCreary, 32.8; Magoffin, 31.7; Martin, 27.6; Morgan, 37.6; Owsley, 28.3; Pike, 39.7; and Wolfe, 35.3.

Those numbers sharply contrast the official unemployment numbers released each month by the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training. The monthly numbers show unemployment in the low single digits in many central Kentucky counties. Even in the coalfields, joblessness seems tame by the monthly statistics. The worst unemployment, according to those estimates, is 15 percent or less, even in counties where the mining industry has collapsed.

The monthly numbers exclude people who have not looked for jobs within the past four weeks or those who have become discouraged and given up on finding jobs altogether. That’s why the report on actual unemployment, which does include discouraged workers, paints such a contrasting economic picture.

Letcher County miner Marcus Branham had worked in the coal industry 16 years before being pink-slipped last December along with 165 of his colleagues.

The third-generation coal miner left school when he was 18 to go underground. Now, the only jobs he can find pay no better than minimum wage — and that’s not enough to support his wife and three children.

Branham desperately wants to stay in the region, but he doesn’t see any future for his children here.

“There’s nothing left here,” he said. “I just want to work, and I can’t find a job.”

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