July 02, 2018

Reflections from Appalachia

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On Saturday, May 5, Kentuckians hosted the 144thKentucky Derby. The world-famous horse race sees crowds of over 160,000 wild hat-wearing, mint julep-drinking fans and revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But as I traveled the state the week prior, the grandeur of the Derby seemed far away as I sat across the table from those who are fighting to protect Kentucky’s most vulnerable populations.  

This trip capped 12 months of visits to Appalachia and other states where hunger remains prevalent to conduct environmental scans, map the anti-hunger advocacy community and identify the way forward for MAZON’s grantmaking. I walked away with hope and energy, buoyed by new relationships with a network of allies working towards a more just and equal Appalachia.  

Here are some of the things I took away.

The Region’s Continued Economic Hardship

To understand how MAZON could support advocacy work in Kentucky and West Virginia, I had to understand the economic realities of the region. Kentucky and West Virginia rank among the poorest states in the country, with median income ranking 46th and 48th respectively. As national unemployment has fallen below 4%, West Virginia ranks second to last at a stubborn 5.4%

Partners continuously told me about the hardships of transitioning into a post-coal economy. According to a new study conducted by the University of Tennessee and West Virginia University, coal production in Appalachia fell nearly 45% between 2005 and 2015, more than twice the national average in the same period.  

Political leaders in these areas are often hostile to public benefit programs, but it’s clear that West Virginia’s and Kentucky’s residents need the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Each state’s enrollment ranks in the top 15 nationwide: in Kentucky nearly 15% (651,028 people) are enrolled in SNAP; the percentage in West Virginia, the nation’s 3rd highest, stands at over 18% (334,464 people).

The Opioid Crisis Is Inescapable

A leading public benefits attorney in Charleston, West Virginia told me that everyone—no matter their socio-economic status, race or background—knows someone personally affected by the opioid crisis. She had just attended a funeral of a neighbor that week. Data paints a stark picture – West Virginia has the highest death rate from opioid overdose in the country (52 per 100,000). A newly released study by the American Enterprise Institute shows that 19 of the top 30 counties with the highest opioid crisis per capita costs are in West Virginia and Kentucky. Boone County, West Virginia and Harrison County, Kentucky hold the number one and two spots respectively. The economic effects of the opioid crisis are still being studied, but in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the cost stood at $78.5 billion, with a considerable portion falling to cash-strapped state governments to cover.  

An Ongoing Rightward Political Drift

Just as in the White House and Congress, conservative political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia engage in a continued assault on vital safety net programs. I continue to hear a lot about “sample” legislation from conservative think tanks making headway through statehouses. The majority of these “mad libs” bills promote indiscriminate changes and cuts to social welfare programs. In West Virginia, a SNAP work requirement bill, one of many such sample legislative pieces authored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), was defeated in 2017 by a state-wide coalition of anti-hunger, agricultural and economic justice organizations led by our partner, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. A new version of the same bill came up for a vote again in 2018, so MAZON’s Quick Reaction Fund underwrote public education television commercials to counter stereotypes of SNAP users. Unfortunately, this bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Jim Justice this past March. 

This year, Kentucky became the first state under new Trump Administration rules to successfully seek waivers expanding Medicaid work requirements. They will begin phasing out Medicaid’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act in July. It is projected nearly 100,000 people will lose health insurance over the next five years. 

MAZON’s Path Forward

Despite these hardships, I remain optimistic about the possibilities for addressing hunger in Kentucky and West Virginia, because of the network of allied justice advocates I met on the ground. It’s clear that the energy and drive to end food insecurity exists in these states.

Our partners at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy established the first state-wide anti-hunger coalition in 2017, bringing together coalition partners who have never engaged on anti-hunger work before. Food Link, a new program out of the University of West Virginia, is producing one-of-a-kind research and analysis of West Virginia’s food systems and public benefit use, arming advocates with compelling stories and data showing the positive effects and vital need for food security programs. Although Kentucky’s economic justice sector is more robust, it needs resources to propel leaders in the legal aid, health care, policy, organizing and child welfare sectors to sustain engagement in anti-hunger campaigns. 

At the moment, however, there is not a single person in either Kentucky or West Virginia who is dedicated full-time to advancing anti-hunger public policy. MAZON’s Emerging Advocacy Fund intends to change that, helping these groups and others in the most challenging environments around the country to build their capacity to engage in anti-hunger advocacy by funding staff positions for up to three years to tackle a new portfolio of anti-hunger work. 

The current cohort of Emerging Advocacy Fund partners can be found here.