Friday, March 05, 2021

Can Biden deliver on promises to coal country, especially Central Appalachia? Residents and experts weigh in

The Central Appalachian coalfield is home to some of the poorest areas in the country, and economic revitalization is badly needed. President Biden has promised to bring high-paying jobs to the region through his climate-change plan, "but after generations of promises, communities once reliant on coal mining are understandably skeptical. Administration after administration has tried to bring the region sustained prosperity, yet many communities remain on the brink," Will Wright reports for The New York Times. "Without direct federal help, local residents and experts say, people living in those communities could suffer increasingly dire consequences as the nation moves away from coal for good — ending the boom-and-bust cycle that dominated their economies with a final and decisive bust."

But Biden must try new tactics and ensure widespread impact to get his promises to stick, said two experts who are on the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog). It's unclear what those new tactics must be, but they told Wright that Biden can start by avoiding past pitfalls that often exacerbated rural disparities.

Ron Eller, author of the Appalachian economic history Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, said previous administrations vowing to revive the region "have largely followed the same formula: job training programs, the recruitment of outside industry and a model that has consolidated power in the hands of few companies and public officials," Wright reports. "The result has been a wildly uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity that is evident to anybody who strays off the highways or outside the county seats. Some towns, such as Pikeville, are centers of wealth within the region, with a private university, several grocery stores and law offices. Outlying rural areas have largely been left out."

Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association, a Kentucky-based community-development nonprofit, told Wright that past administrations have "accomplished really important work . . . but it has not been fundamentally transforming," so change for coal communities will have to be "some order of magnitude larger" than previous efforts. In a recent op-ed, Hille expanded on how Biden needs the right policy initiatives and large-scale investment to fulfill his promises to coal country.

Wright interviewed a diverse sampling of Eastern Kentuckians, including local leaders. Coal miner Thor Campbell said he thinks his children will struggle if they stay in their hometown after high school and said he expects coal mining jobs to disappear completely in the next five years. He doesn't know how to do anything else and said there are no clear substitute careers for older miners like himself. Bakery owner Gwen Johnson said she would welcome federal funding, but said she's "just sick and tired of outsiders saying what we need" because such funding is often mishandled and misplaced. Locals know better how to transform their communities, she said.

Matt Wireman, the judge-executive of Magoffin County, said it has a new industrial park, broadband access and tourism potential, and he thinks a little help from the federal government could help put it over the top. But he told Wright, "I want to see action, I want to see things that are tangible. . . . They can talk and talk and talk. Let’s see things we can see, feel and touch."

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