Why Is Kentucky So Poor? (9 Reasons Why)

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Morgan Stephens

Morgan Stephens has been to 43 countries and counting, and he's never content to stay in one place for too long. Right now, he's living in South Korea, but he's always on the lookout for his next adventure.

24/7 Wall Street recently did a tally of the worst places to live in the United States. Of the top 25 countries, 10 of them lie in Kentucky. 

One of the main measures of index was the poverty line, and more than 30% of Kentucky residents need food stamps or other services to afford basic measures. 

Why is this? Here are the top 9 reasons why Kentucky might be so poor.

Why Is Kentucky So Poor?

1. Kentucky’s Main Export Was Coal

Back in the 1940’s or so, Kentucky was known for three major things: 

  • Coal
  • Lumber 
  • Tobacco

Unfortunately for the residents of Kentucky, all three of these industries have taken a major hit over the years because of modern sensibilities. 

With tobacco becoming less popular due to health reasons and coal and lumber becoming less popular for environmental reasons, their main exports were crushed when those industries collapsed.

Coal was by far the worst hit; in the 1940’s, more than 55% of American houses used coal for some kind of heating. Today, the percentage is more like 23.6%.

2. There Are No Jobs

Related to point #1 (as you’ll find, many of these points are interconnected), with their main export taken out, there are no jobs for the residents of Kentucky.

For example, in Martin County, the amount of coal jobs fell by 63% between 2011 and 2015. As a result, nearly 30% of those living in Martin County are below the poverty line.

3. There Is A Drugs Epidemic

With the lack of jobs around, people have turned to desperate means to pay the bills. One of these means has ballooned into a drug epidemic which has swept all throughout Kentucky.

According to residents, elderly may sell their prescriptions to get by, whilst doctors and pharmacies capitalize on the rare lucrative business.

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Frankly, with a multitude of bad reputations, the drug problem in Kentucky has turned everything from bad to worse.

4. The Population Is Dying

Sounds cruel, but it must be covered; Kentucky has one of the worst life expectancy rates in America. 

This may be because of a few reasons, the drug problem and number of overdoses being one, the rural nature meaning many residents cannot access medical care quickly being another.

For a few examples:

  • McDowell County has a life expectancy of 70.3 years. 
  • Clay County has a life expectancy of 71.8 years
  • Harlan County has a life expectancy of 71.5 years.
  • Bell County has a life expectancy of 72.7 years.

The national average is typically around 79.1 years.

With the populations shrinking, the surviving businesses have no customers nor people to run them. That means that even non-coal related businesses begin to die off as well. 

5. People Are Leaving En Mass

People Are Leaving En Mass

With no jobs, a drugs epidemic and a low quality of life where you live, why stay? 

People have been part of a mass exodus since the coal mines shut down in the 1940’s and there doesn’t seem to be slowing.

Some of the places in Kentucky losing their populations are:

  • Floyd County
  • Martin County
  • Knox County
  • Breathitt County
  • Bell County
  • Leslie County
  • Harlan County

Harlan County has suffered in particular – in 1940, there were a reported 75,300 living there. Now, there’s around 27,500. In the last half a decade, it has lost 5.7% of its population.

Leslie County is even worse, if you can believe it – a drop of 5.9%, from 15,500 in the 1950’s to 10,600.

McDowell County is worse still – 100,000 in 1950, less than 20,000 today, with a 10.3% drop.

With prospects looking bad in Kentucky, people are leaving en mass, which as the same poor effect on the economy as the other way the populations are shrinking.

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There can be no economy if there are no people to maintain it. 

6. A Poor State Of Education

It is a simple correlation that a good education leads to a higher income. Many counties in Kentucky, predictably, have an extremely low rate of education.

For instance:

  • In Clay County, it is thought that less than one in ten adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • In Jackson County, this percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree is thought to be 10.5%
  • In Martin County, this percentage is just 8.2%
  • Knox County may be affected the worst, though, with only 68% of adults having passed high school and 10% having an education higher than that.

For reference, the average level of adults having a high school diploma in the US is around 80%, and those having higher degrees, around 30%

The poor education may do something to explain the mass exodus from Kentucky as well.

Not only are adults leaving for job prospects elsewhere, but the younger generation are likely leaving more positive educational prospects out there as well. 

7. Obesity Is A Real Problem

With all the health concerns in Kentucky, obesity has been one of the biggest offenders as well.

This again leads to population decline as people die from obesity related diseases such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer

This is also connected to Kentucky’s poor state of healthcare and it being difficult to adapt a healthy lifestyle under the poverty line.

Those who don’t die from obesity may find themselves unable to work and have to take disability, and lack of workers can be a real problem in a declining population.

In Lee County for example, nearly half the population is classed as obese.

8. Efforts Tackling Poverty Focus On Urban Places

There was a time when efforts to tackle poverty focused on rural areas and the underclass therein.

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President Lyndon Johnson was a champion of this, drawing attention to Kentucky especially, where many couldn’t feed their children, and lacked plumbing and electricity in their homes. 

Poverty levels fell dramatically thanks to Johnson, but as the remainder of the US gets richer, Kentucky has found itself forgotten again. 

Unfortunately, this is because much effort to tackle poverty has now switched to inner city areas and the help around Kentucky has largely been lost. 

9. Its Terrible Reputation Scares Outsiders

Many places in America get their money from tourism, and in small country towns in America, the tourist trade can be the lifeblood of the town. 

There are actually many beautiful places to visit in Kentucky, and many cultural reasons to visit, such as frontier novels being set there, and it being the birthplace of bourbon whiskey

However, the reputation of ‘hillbilly’ has taken hold, due to media such as The Beverly Hillbillies and reports on its drug epidemic.

To learn more, you can also read our posts on why Louisiana is so poor, why Eastern Europe is so poor, and why Mexico is so poor.


So those are the nine main reasons Kentucky is poor: their main exports collapsed, taking the jobs with them, a drug epidemic and obesity shortens the lives of the population, with others leaving.

There’s little higher education for its residents, and outsiders are dissuaded from both visiting and helping from the foul reputation of the place


  • Morgan Stephens

    Morgan Stephens has been to 43 countries and counting, and he's never content to stay in one place for too long. Right now, he's living in South Korea, but he's always on the lookout for his next adventure.

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