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2050 Population Projections For Western Kentucky Challenge the Region to Unite
Thanks to redistricting, 1st District Congressman Rep. James Comer now lives in his district. (Map credit - Google)

A new report from the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville forecasts significant lags in western Kentucky county populations through 2050. This is notably true in the Jackson Purchase where only McCracken County is projected to grow significantly. The Mississippi River counties, especially Hickman County which may lose more than one-quarter of its current population, will experience significant population decreases. Graves, Calloway, and Marshall counties will, according to the report, do well to hold its present population.

A stagnant demographic outlook, in fact, continues a long-term trend, depicted in the table below, in the region dating back nearly a century.

COUNTY

1930 POPULATION

2020 POPULATION

2050 PROJECTED POPULATION

CHANGE 1930-2050

Ballard

9,910

7,728

5,979

-3,931

Calloway

17,662

37,191

38,424

+20,762

Carlisle

7,363

4,826

3,765

-3,598

Fulton

14,927

6,515

5,349

-9,578

Graves

30,778

36,649

35,575

+4,797

Hickman

8,725

4,521

3,139

-5,586

McCracken

46,271

67,875

71,761

+25,490

Marshall

12,889

31,659

30,218

+17,329

The numbers predict the loss of further political clout in western Kentucky. The First Congressional District will continue to absorb counties in central Kentucky and the number of western Kentucky seats in the state legislature will decline.

In my recent book on western Kentucky history and politics, I touched on how the region's politics managed to parlay losses in population in the 20th century by capitalizing on its strength as the "Gibraltar of Kentucky Democracy" to propel seven western Kentuckians to the governor's mansion from 1931-79 and provided a power base for U.S. Senator Alben Barkley who was Senate majority leader from 1937-46 and Vice President under President Truman.

Strong leadership in Washington and Frankfort paid off in the construction of bridges crossing the region's many bridges, access to cheap TVA electricity during Keen Johnson's administration, improved rural roads and development of the state parks on Kentucky Lake during Governor Earle Clements administration, construction of I-24 and the many parkways built during the second half of the 20th century. These forward steps often came when western Kentucky lawmakers presented a united front in Frankfort in pushing their agenda. This strategy was formalized in 1986 by the creation of the Western Kentucky Political Caucus that includes all legislators west of I-65. The Caucus was especially effective, aided by the annual bird hunt, that brought their colleagues and the state's political leadership to Ballard County, in winning appropriations for the improvements on Highway 68/80 connecting Bowling Green to Murray and Mayfield.

The effectiveness of western Kentucky in winning improvements for the region have been less noticeable in recent years as control of the region has passed into Republican hands. In Washington, political pork barrel has been frowned upon. The First Congressional District is now in the hands of a congressman from Tompkinsville in south central Kentucky whose move to Frankfort was followed by the General Assembly redrawing the district to include Franklin County.

Something more daring may be needed in the future if western Kentucky is to move forward. The cooperation in rebuilding areas in the region impacted by the December 2021 tornadoes points to what can be done when our lawmakers work with the state and federal government to solve a problem, however, this has been limited in scope.

Efforts in this direction have been ongoing for decades. Bill Cox, for example, the late state representative and mayor of Madisonville who was a major figure in Governor Julian Carroll's administration saw the need to raise the image of western Kentucky in order to compete with the "golden triangle" of central Kentucky. He suggested a "resource triangle" using coal from the Western Kentucky Coal Field and the cheap energy from western Kentucky to attract industry and investments from the state. More recently, the abundance of lakes and rivers in western Kentucky has been used to advertise the region.

A more expansive approach may, in fact, be warranted. This was suggested, briefly, in historian William Ellis' history of education in Kentucky by the notion of a "problem crescent" that extends from Appalachia along the Tennessee border. In this stretch are numerous counties with high poverty rates. Though the name is not attractive, the possibility of finding common ground with the eastern counties is.

Eastern Kentucky, according to the Kentucky State Data Center, is also to see many counties lose population in the coming years. However, leaders there embarked on Project SOAR in 2013 aimed at bringing leaders there to implement strategies aimed at transitioning its economy to the challenges of the 21st century.

There may be other strategies open to western Kentucky. One thing that is almost certain, it is highly doubtful to expect any different outcome than the dismal one laid out in the State Data Center projections if we continue to do the same thing.

Editor's Note: Thanks to a sharp eyed Water Valley cousin of George's, this is a revised version of the earlier article. Viva la sharp eyed editors!


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