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The Urban-Rural Divide in Kentucky

Renee Shaw and guests discuss bridging the urban-rural divide in Kentucky. Guests include: Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky; Alison Davis, Ph.D., professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky and the executive director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky; and others.
Season 28 Episode 22 Length 56:34 Premiere: 07/12/21


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

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Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Experts Discuss Challenges in Bringing Kentuckians Together Despite Their Differences

What defines a rural area in Kentucky depends on who you ask. Is it a place with a lower population density, a slower pace of life, and lots of open farmland? Or is it any place that’s not a metropolitan city like Louisville, Lexington, or Bowling Green?

While there is no universal definition, Kentucky’s rural and urban areas have their own unique characters, and those differences shape the social, economic and political dynamics of the commonwealth.

“A hundred years ago, the country was about half rural,” says Dee Davis, founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg. “Now it’s 80 percent metropolitan or more.”

About of quarter of the state’s population live in Kentucky’s five largest cities. Many more Kentuckians live in counties that adjoin these metro areas – counties that people may consider suburbia but that often maintain a rural flavor and outlook. Think of Oldham County in relation to Louisville, or Madison or Woodford counties in relation to Lexington.

“As our big cities continue grow out, they’re subsuming the rural areas that are turning into urban areas,” says University of Kentucky agricultural economist Alison Davis, who is also director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky.

That means the state’s urban areas and small cities are growing but outlying counties in the truly rural parts of the commonwealth are struggling to hold their populations. Kentucky State Data Center Director Matthew Ruther says those rural counties tend to have higher death rates and more outmigration.

Demographics can also be starkly different. Ruther says people living in rural western and southeastern Kentucky tend to be older than average. Rural areas also have higher poverty rates, lower educational attainment, and far less diversity.

“Kentucky has a very, very small rural Black population, maybe 1 percent,” says Ruther, who is also director of the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville. “Most of the Black population in Kentucky lives in Louisville or lives Lexington. You can compare that to the rest of the south, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, where there is a huge rural Black population.”

Urban-Rural Divides in Politics

Although more Kentuckians now reside in cities and suburban areas, don’t count out the rural folks when it comes to state politics.

“We have a rural-dominated legislature even though the state is majority urban in population,” says Al Cross of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Cross says the urban-rural differences can play out in a variety of ways in Frankfort. He contends urban voters tend to be more unhappy about economic issues, while rural voters bemoan changes to values and social issues.

“They see a country that is moving away from the way that they grew up and want to continue to live,” says Cross.

A challenge that’s unique to Kentucky, according to Cross, is its abundance of counties. He says residing in a small, rural county can limit the orbit people operate in, which can result in “provincialism squared.”

Rural and urban lawmakers can and do collaborate on policy, sometimes in surprising ways. In the 2021 legislative session, Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester, population about 1,300, worked with Jefferson County lawmakers to pass a bill to create a special taxing district to benefit traditionally Black neighborhoods of West Louisville that have struggled for decades.

Yet partisan politics has exacerbated some rural-urban divides. Cross contends politicians have taught rural voters to be suspicious of urban people who they think have more money and power, or who may be people of color. Still Cross says he doesn’t think the divide between city and country people is any worse here than in other states.

“Because a lot of people in urban Kentucky are still rural in character,” Cross says. “They’re not all that far removed from the small towns where they grew up.”

Dee Davis says there have always been political issues that divide urban and rural Americans. But he urges people to avoid stereotyping either side and to realize that issues and populations are always changing.

“We can see rural counties and assume that they’re all white, or monolithic, or redneck, but the reality is that there’s lots of dynamism working in our rural counties,” he says. “What we need to concentrate on is making sure that we’re building inclusive ways to learn from each other and to create a common future.”

The Economics of Rural Places

Population shifts aren’t the only challenge facing rural areas. Cross says the rise of big-box stores and online shopping has hurt locally owned main-street businesses.

“The merchant class of any small town has always been a primary piece of civic capital,” says Cross. “It’s where you get initiative, and innovation, and civic spirit, and you just don’t see that as much anymore because you don’t have those kinds of locally owned businesses.”

Compounding that problem is how some long-time rural residents resist suggestions from new faces in their communities.

“There are towns in this state that have not grown because people came to the town with fresh ideas and perspectives and wanted to be civically active and got the cold shoulder,” Cross says. “So they left.”

That reluctance to embrace people who want to help can also extend to government officials or academic researchers. Alison Davis says those outsiders bring some of that on themselves by how they treat locals. She says they sometimes arrive touting solutions to all of a town’s problems, reject input from local citizens, and then leave before anything substantive is accomplished.

“Here we come in trying to save the world and actually end up doing more damage than good,” she says. “I think folks in rural communities just get real tired of being told what to do… Those answers all have to come from within.”

Maintaining a thriving economy in even the most open and best-run communities is still hard. Davis points to an acclaimed program in Johnson County that trains people for advanced manufacturing jobs. The only problem is that graduates have to leave the area to find the work they’ve just been trained to do.

“Why aren’t we reaching out to where all those job openings are across the country and say, ‘Here we are, we’ve got this amazing pipeline of really excited people ready to go to work who have these skills,’” says Alison Davis. “But it’s just a really big mismatch.”

Dee Davis contends part of the problem trickles down from Frankfort, where he says state lawmakers have continued to invest in declining industries. Beyond simply providing job opportunities that would allow rural residents to stay home and earn a good wage, Dee Davis says local leaders should also focus on quality-of-life issues.

“The future of a town is people want to live there. There’s a caring economy with health care, people want good schools, they want technology so that they can work,” he says. “If you create a town that you want to live in, you’ve got a lot better shot at building from there an economy than trying to coax a widget factory in or keep an extractive industry that’s beyond its time.”

Favoring Actual Communities Over Virtual Ones

The panelists agree that uniting residents of a major city, a small town, or the rural countryside to tackle local challenges has become increasingly difficult thanks to social media. Cross says social media sites can provide a great service to people.

“But when it comes to building community, it’s pretty damn bad,” says Cross.

“We’ve only so much time on our hands,” he continues, “and the more time people spend in in these non-geographic virtual communities, the less time they have to spend with their geographic communities and put some initiative and effort into addressing their problems.”

Dee Davis agrees.

“The division is there, it’s accelerated by social media like Facebook and other platforms, but if we can frame what we’re doing with what our community needs, then I think we have a chance to transcend some of these differences that we think are intractable,” he says.

Alison Davis says mainstream media could help by presenting positive stories about the successes happening outside of metro areas, instead of falling back on negative stereotypes about poor and rural Americans. Matthew Ruther also says education can help ease divisions among urban and rural citizens.

“Our universities have a role here, our elementary and high schools have a role in bridging this gap [and] understanding these different places that we come from,” says Ruther.

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Season 28 Episodes

City and County Issues

S28 E38 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/13/21

Compensating College Athletes: Name, Image and Likeness

S28 E36 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/22/21

Trends in State and National Politics

S28 E35 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/15/21

Abortion Rights and Restrictions

S28 E34 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/08/21

Kentucky's Social Services System

S28 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/01/21

School Choice in the Commonwealth

S28 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/25/21

Historical Horse Racing: A Growing Pastime in Kentucky

S28 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/11/21

New Developments and the Unknowns of COVID-19

S28 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/04/21

COVID and the Classroom

S28 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/27/21

Remembering 9/11, 20 Years Later

S28 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/13/21

Kentucky's Response to COVID-19

S28 E27 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 08/30/21

Discussing the Surge of COVID-19 Cases in Kentucky

S28 E26 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 08/23/21

Fancy Farm Preview and State Politics

S28 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/02/21

Back-To-School Issues in Kentucky

S28 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/26/21

Childcare Challenges

S28 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/19/21

The Urban-Rural Divide in Kentucky

S28 E22 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 07/12/21

Work Shifts: Kentucky's Labor Shortage and Hiring Challenges

S28 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/28/21

Public Infrastructure: What Kentucky Needs

S28 E19 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/21/21

Debating Critical Race Theory

S28 E18 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/14/21

Kentucky's Rebound From COVID-19

S28 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/07/21

Jobs and the Economy

S28 E16 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/17/21

The Future of Policing in America

S28 E15 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/10/21

President Biden's First 100 Days

S28 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/03/21

Mass Shootings and Gun Laws

S28 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/26/21

Voting Rights and Election Laws

S28 E12 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/20/21

The 2021 General Assembly: Debating Major Legislation

S28 E11 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 04/12/21

Wrapping Up the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E10 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/29/21

School Choice in Kentucky

S28 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/22/21

No-Knock Warrants

S28 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/15/21

Debating Legislative Priorities in the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E7 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 03/08/21

Proposed Legislation to Modify Kentucky Teachers' Pensions

S28 E6 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/22/21

Debating Historical Horse Racing Legislation

S28 E5 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/08/21

New Lawmakers in the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly

S28 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/01/21

A Nation Divided

S28 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/18/21

Recapping the Start of the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E2 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/11/21

Previewing the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E1 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/04/21

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