Shepherd made his own opportunity here in Whitesburg. He decided to open a restaurant on the main street. It's called Heritage Kitchen, and the food is homey and fresh. "Growing up, you don't know what you want to do," Shepherd said. "It just doesn't seem like the place, there's no opportunity, unless you wanted to work in the coal mines, so I was like, well, I'm getting out of here where there's nothing to do. But you just keep wanting to come home."
That theme — coming home — is one that echoes throughout the hills of Letcher County.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the depth of poverty in rural America at a Farm Foundation Forum Monday, while at a separate meeting, Lisa Mensah, his top assistant on rural development, called for increased access to broadband as a way to give an economic boost to underserved communities.
Vilsack, speaking at the National Press Club, stressed the importance of targeting USDA resources in rural counties that are persistently impoverished - where at least 20 percent of the county's population has been living in poverty for the last 30 years or more.
Nationwide, there are between 350 and 384 of these “persistent poverty” counties (PPCs) and about 85 percent of them are rural. Of the rural PPCs, about two thirds are located in the Old Confederacy and about one-fourth are within Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, referred to as the Mid-South.
“In the Mid-South, there are 39 PPCs and 35 of those (have a population that is) majority black,” said forum participant Bill Bynum, the CEO of a community development bank called Hope Credit Union Enterprise Corp., which provides affordable financing to underserved communities across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
From February 2015 to February 2016, unemployment remained higher in nonmetropolitan areas. The rural heartland did better than the South or the eastern coalfields.
What’s it like to grow old in rural America?
When it comes to attention and medical resources, “we’re kind of underrepresented,” said Dr. Bill George, who practices at Beartooth Billings Clinic in Red Lodge. “People sometimes feel forgotten.”
The rural American population is older: About 15 percent of residents are 65 or older, compared with 12 percent in urban areas, largely because many people have left in search of education and jobs.