MAGOFFIN COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — Lawmakers in Kentucky are trying to get more people off the state's unemployment system and into the workforce. They passed a bill in the house to accomplish the first part, but some Kentuckians in the county with the highest unemployment rate say this will make their lives more difficult.
Salyersville native Johnny Cole spent more than 15 years working in the coal industry in Magoffin County. His hands show the wear and tear he's endured.
"That pound and grind 12 hours a day all day long-it works on you," said Cole.
Cole is retired now, but there was a point where he was driving 220 miles a day for another job. He says that's the reality of living in a county where there aren't a lot of good job opportunities. Once the coal industry dried up there, he says so did the jobs.
"Basically, once it fizzled out, nothing's replaced it," said Cole. "I really don't know of anything I could tell you we have employment for-it's sad."
While unemployment claims decreased significantly since the start of the pandemic, unemployment has hit rural communities in Kentucky hard. Magoffin County specifically, is always amongst the highest rates in the state.
"I think at one point we were actually eighth in the nation," said Judge/Executive Matt Wireman.
Right now, their number of unemployed compared to the county's working population is the highest in the state at 15.2% for the month of January.
Researchers like Dustin Pugel with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy have studied why for years. He says it's a part of a radical economic transformation in eastern Kentucky.
"When coal jobs began to decline, so do a lot of other jobs around that. So now we're left with a situation where a lot of folks are out of work there and continue to look for work while wages have been stagnant," said Pugel.
He also says lack of school funding plays a role.
"The public sector tends to be an economic driver in areas with few other industries. Specifically, local school districts are often the largest employers in rural counties. But due to years of state underfunding, teacher salaries have fallen through both a failure to keep up with inflation and in some cases, outright cuts. In Magoffin County, for example, the average teacher pay has fallen an inflation-adjusted 19.5% or -$11,800," Pugel explained.