September 26, 2018
This Kentucky county is the worst-performing white-majority county in the nation
By Will Wright
U.S. News and World Report ranks an Eastern Kentucky county as the worst-performing white-majority county in the nation in a special report released Tuesday that analyzes links between race, geography and health outcomes.
The report analyzed a number of health and economic factors, including job availability, prevalence of various diseases, smoking rates, housing affordability, and air and water quality.
Martin County, a rural area of Eastern Kentucky that shares a border with West Virginia, scored just 10.5 out of a possible 100 points, faring especially weak in categories that measure economic opportunity.
The Herald-Leader spotlighted Martin County’s struggles in 2013 as part of a series called 50 Years of Night, which explored the struggles of Appalachian Kentucky 50 years after the publication of Harry Caudill’s famed “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.”
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his War on Poverty by landing in Martin County in a helicopter and touring the countryside with the White House press corps.
The county’s poverty rate has dropped nearly in half since Johnson’s visit, but it remains above 30 percent and much higher than the national average.
As jobs have dried up — coal jobs in the county plummeted 63 percent between 2011 and 2015 — many of the county’s residents have been forced to move away. The county’s population dropped 11 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to U.S. News.
More recently, the county’s water system has amassed a large debt as it struggles to provide clean drinking water to residents.
The U.S. News story highlighted at least one beacon of hope, though: measurable improvements in college- and career-readiness among the county’s high school students.
In 2009, just seven students at Sheldon Clark High School, in the county seat of Inez, were deemed ready for college, and just 19 percent were deemed ready for a career.
By 2016, though, nearly 60 percent of students there earned some college credit before graduating, and more than 70 percent were deemed college ready. Both those marks are higher than the statewide average.
The U.S. News analysis of Martin County is part of a special report on Race and Community Health in America.