Danny Ferguson didn’t like what he saw happening in Lincoln County, West Virginia, where he grew up. The downturn in the coal industry had hit hard, and young people had few job options beyond some fast food places.
“We don’t have nothing else for them to be employed,” Ferguson said. “Lincoln County is in bad shape and Coalfield seemed like the only one willing to take a chance in that area.”
That’s the Coalfield Development Corporation, where Ferguson now works as a crew chief to mentor and train young people in carpentry and other skills. Trainees earn pay while getting experience as they reclaim old buildings, restore furniture, and install solar energy stations. Ferguson said the program offers hope in an otherwise bleak situation.
“The coal is dead, but they’re trying to find something for these kids to go do instead of nothing.”
In another coal town— Paintsville, Kentucky— Melissa Anderson gets a different kind of job training.
Andrew Noble, Chad Trador, and Melissa Anderson are interns with TechHire Eastern Kentucky. (Photo: Benny Becker / Ohio Valley ReSource)
Anderson is in a program called TechHire Eastern Kentucky where she gets skills in coding and a shot at employment in a tech company.
TechHire and the Coalfield Development Corporation were both created with support from the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, which has been funding infrastructure and economic development projects in the region for decades. But under President Trump’s so-called “skinny” budget proposal the ARC and 18 other federal agencies would lose all funding, alarming economic development officials and sparking a budget resistance among regional lawmakers — even those in the president’s party.
The ARC has invested over $3.8 billion in the Appalachian region since its creation during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Poverty rates have improved, and fewer counties now fall in the “economically distressed” category, but the region is still home to some of the poorest communities in the country.
“The data show they are moving the needle,” she said, “and also show that we are not done.”
Historically, most ARC funding has been for roads and other basic infrastructure. But as the Appalachian highway system nears completion, the ARC has shifted its efforts to encourage economic growth and diversification.
“What we see with these agencies is they have a critical role around innovation and development, particularly in communities that are struggling the most,” Tyree said.
Small rural communities don’t have as much access to investment capital needed to get new projects in motion. Dee Davis, director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, said the the ARC is especially important for getting new projects off the ground and leveraging other investment. ARC figures show that the federal dollars spent led to around $16 billion more in private investment.
Trainee Jacob Dyer on a Coalfield Development Corporation work site in West Virginia. (Photo: Rebecca Kiger / Ohio Valley ReSource)
“They don’t have a lot of money but they have strategic money,” Davis said. “They can pave the way for other investors.”
Davis said people outside the region might not appreciate just how big an impact that investment can have, and how big a blow it would be to lose it.
“When you’re living on the ground in those communities then you feel it, because you’re already working as hard as you can to keep the community together,” he said.
What is government for?
One of ARC’s recent initiatives helped launch both the Coalfield Development Corporation and TechHire Eastern Kentucky, along with dozens of other projects. The Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER initiative, was funded by Congress to help communities affected by job losses in the Appalachian coal industry. Working with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, or EDA, the POWER initiative has invested nearly $73 million in coal communities in less than two years [see graphic above].
The president’s budget would also eliminate the EDA, even though many of its chief recipients are in places that helped elect him, such as eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, and southern West Virginia.
“It is ironic that a place that voted three-to-one for Trump faces the first and most draconian cuts,” Davis said, noting that a region that contributed to the nation’s energy security needs help to diversify its economic base.
“We have the worst health, the shortest life expectancy,” he said. “If that signals a time for the federal government to cut bait and leave, then you need to raise the question, what does government do?”
Tyree said the work to create new economic opportunity in the region will continue without the federal government investments, but that work will be set back. However, she doubts the White House budget proposal will fare well in Congress, where the ARC has champions on both sides of the aisle.
“They have strong support in Congress,” she said. “I think it is clear to pretty much everyone except the current administration how much value they provide.”
Early responses from the region’s elected officials indicate Tyree might be right.
The New York Times reported that Kentucky’s Republican Governor Matt Bevin joined a White House conference call to register his complaints about cuts to the ARC. Eastern Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, a powerful Republican presence in the House appropriations process, called the budget cuts to the ARC and EDA “draconian, careless and counterproductive”.
Another Kentucky Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told television station WYMT that the proposed cuts were “not going to happen.” “We’re not going to allow any cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission,” he said.
The current federal funding bill is set to expire next month. Congress will need to pass a new budget or an extension before April 28th to prevent a government shutdown.
(Photo: Rebecca Kiger / Ohio Vallet ReSource)
Not Giving Up
Coalfield Development Corporation mentor Ferguson sat with one of his young trainees, Jacob Dyer, as they described some of their recent projects. The groundwork for a solar facility had been a tough but rewarding job, and Dyer is thinking of pursuing work in the solar industry.
Another project renovated low-income apartments. “If you build something that’s still there years later, it’s a sense of pride,” Dyer said.
Ferguson’s crew is in the process of refurbishing an abandoned factory into a training center. He said the property had become a haven for drug use and vagrancy but will now become a positive force for the community.
“It sums up what Coalfield is,” Ferguson said. “What people are giving up on, we are not giving up on. One way or another we will make it happen.”
This story was originally produced by Ohio Valley ReSource. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Glynis Board contributed to this story.
This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.
The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.
Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.
“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.
‘One tweet away’
A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.
The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.
“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”
He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.
“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”
Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.
“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.
Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.
In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.
“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.
Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.
West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.
“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.
Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.
“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”
Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.
“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.
Deficits Despite Growth
The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.
“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.
Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.
A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.
“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”
As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.
The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”
This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.
Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.
So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017
In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.
In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year.
During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.
The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.
Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005
In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.
After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.
Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001
In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.
Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997
Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.
Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.
Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”
That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!
This article was originally published by PolitiFact.
In April 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited Martin County, Kentucky to rally support for his War on Poverty. The Poverty Tours culminated in August of 1964 with the signing of the Anti-Poverty Bill. Photo courtesy of National Archives/LBJ Presidential Library
It was somewhat of a homecoming when Los Angeles filmmakers Ashley York and Sally Rubin came to Appalachia to film the documentary hillbilly.
York was born in Kentucky, studied journalism at the University of Kentucky, and was always looking for the right opportunity to document modern Appalachian culture. Rubin was born in Massachusetts but her mother was from Tennessee, and much of her documentary work has focused on Appalachia.
In 2010, York saw Rubin’s film Deep Down about mountaintop removal and reached out, looking, perhaps, for an opportunity to collaborate.
“She thought I’d depicted Appalachian people as honorable and dignified,” Rubin said.
“We were kindred spirits with the topic of demonization and discrimination that has been so pervasively depicted about Appalachia,” York added.
In 2013, they began work on hillbilly. It started as an exploration of the term and the portrayal of the stereotype in all types of media.
“The film seeks to elevate the stories and perspectives of a wide range of people living and working in Appalachia,” York told 100 Days one week before hillbilly’s debut at the Nashville Film Festival in the spring of 2018.
“I’ve thought about media representation for a long time, and I would say this has not been an easy story to tell at all. We are definitely trying to use the film to abolish stereotypes about the region and to show alternative voices,” Rubin said. “At the same time, we are committed to complex, multi-dimensional portraits of this region. Those aren’t one-sided, and they’re not easy to paint.”
The picture they delivered is a vivid and nuanced portrait of a region. Where Coal Miner’s Daughter and Harlan County USA focused on the industry of the place, the story of hillbilly is told by the people who have spent their lives in the region, as well as the artists, poets, activists, musicians, who express what it is to be Appalachian.
The widespread fanfare and critical acclaim that has followed has been astounding.In October, after a long tour on the film festival circuit, Hulu acquired hillbilly, bringing it to a mainstream, national audience.
Hart Fowler spoke with York and Rubin after the Hulu acquisition, about the two years since the release.
HF: When you started this project, it was really supposed to be focused on the historical and contemporary portrayal of rural people and the term “hillbilly” in the media, but the 2016 presidential election became a significant part of the documentary. I imagine you weren’t prepared for the timing or the scale of that election when you began the project.
SR: We’d already been filming for three years when Trump and the election happened. That was never on our radar in the production of the film, and then we had to play catch to figure out how this story was going to play nationally and how [the election] would play into our movie.
AY: We were looking for things to unify our cast and Trump was starting to become a thing. My grandma went to a rally and I was like, ‘what?’ I was very surprised by that. That was about the time we started to think there was something meaningful here. Both of us as lifelong democrats.
HF: That was a somewhat touching scene where you, Ashley, mention living your Granny’s dream of leaving Kentucky. Two years after the documentary and three years into the Trump Administration, have you noticed any changes in your family’s political views, or of their opinions on the current administration?
AY: My granny has a lot of great stories I’ve been recording, mostly in audio but also in interviews on camera too. It was kind of a natural progression for us to end up there, that November. I see them a lot, every time I fly in or out, I go through [Pike County] because it is close to the Cincinnati airport. So, I have a long relationship with them, sitting around the kitchen table, sharing stories. That’s just the way we operate and have for a very long time, so I think that’s why it feels so natural and organic– ‘cause it is.
There’s only a few people who we spoke with intimately in the movie who voted for Trump. Most everybody else is progressive and voted for Hillary, but we just don’t talk politics with them. My granny and her Uncle Bobby [the two Trump supporters in the film], from what I understand, are still enthusiastic for Donald Trump.
We will see how things evolve as we get closer to the convention next summer. Let’s say somebody like Joe Biden became the [Democratic] nominee. I wonder if he would be interesting to them. He certainly wouldn’t have at any other point in their lives, and Donald Trump is not a shining star by any means.
Their point of view these days is very similar to what it was during the election. I would say ask them because we usually don’t talk politics.
HF: Hulu acquired hillbilly this fall, but won’t release the total number of views or streams on their platform so far. But it is a big distribution deal and now much larger audiences are able to see the film. Can you talk about some of the feedback you have received since the Hulu deal?
SR: In January 2019, [hillbilly] went live on Amazon and Youtube for purchase, but this Hulu release was the first on [a subscription-based] streaming platform. The biggest response to me from the people that view it has come from writing in to our page. Even internationally, where it comes up on their Hulu, they talk about how it changed their lives and changed their views. That is really gratifying.
AY: I’ve definitely been getting a lot of responses, a lot of emails, most saying, ‘I stumbled upon this movie and wasn’t looking for it. It kind of found me.’ People overwhelmingly have been moved by it and relate to it in a way, many with shared experiences with people in the film talking about being marginalized or discriminated against, people really relate to that.
HF: One of those marginalized people you show in the film is Billy Redden, who famously played the small boy in Deliverance that plays Dueling Banjos. He shares in the film that he felt taken advantage of by the film and his portrayal in it, and has struggled financially since. How did he react to your film?
SR: I would say 100 percent of the cast and crew loved the movie and were behind it. [Billy] loved the movie and felt that it did his story justice. He came on the road with us to a couple of festivals.
AY: We did a crowdfunding campaign to bring him to Los Angeles when we brought the movie to the Los Angeles Film Festival. In hillbilly, Billy told us, “I was hoping I’d get to Los Angeles someday.” But that didn’t happen after Deliverance.
We had sold-out performances at the festival, including at the Arc Light which is one of the most premier cinemas in the world. It was a great experience, with the red carpet and all that.
SR: It was our second premiere in the heart of Hollywood and at the Warner Brothers studio that had made Deliverance. It was incredible, [Billy] got a standing ovation. He was paid $500 for Deliverance. We had a very generous donor at the film release that called in to donate $7,000 to him for his instability we showed in [our] story.
HF: In addition to discussions of Deliverance in your film, director Michael Apted’s film Coal Miner’s Daughter is referenced and he is also a source, sitting to speak to you all about Appalachian culture portrayed in film. He also spoke at some of your screenings. What was it like meeting and working with Apted, such a highly regarded and prolific filmmaker, in this project and the screenings of the film after?
SR: He came to our first screening in Nashville and everyone hooted and hollered [for him]. Our run here in L.A. was similar, where he had a long introduction and discussion with the audience. He was very supportive of the film, which was very gratifying after our five years of [work].
AY: It was great to spend time with Michael. We talked a lot together about Coal Miner’s Daughter, another film that was always on when I was growing up. I love that movie and it is such quality cinema. My dad and mom love that movie, my sister loves that movie; it was meaningful to talk with him and hear about his experience showing the film [all over the country].
HF: Sally mentioned you premiered the film in Nashville, a city that’s quickly changing and growing now, but is still the heart of Country Music, or historically hillbilly music. What was it like having this film show for the first time in that city?
AY: That was in 2018. The first screening sold out so we added a second screening. They had a red-carpet and we were the largest red-carpet of the [Nashville Film Festival] and a lot of the cast was there. It was really tremendous. Dolly Parton saw the movie and said it was wonderful, so it was great to have her blessing and kind words going into the festival.
SR: The premiere was really something. That’s when we first spoke with The Orchard (an entertainment distribution company) and they made an offer and we negotiated for months eventually leading to Hulu buying the film.
HF: Did you expect that coming in? I imagine the debut was a tense moment.
AY: Yes, [but] the movie was made with such loving care, I wasn’t worried that we were going to offend people or have a negative response. There were certainly people who don’t like the movie and have called it liberal garbage and who aren’t sensitive to our point of view and that’s fine.
Most people appreciate the movie and learned something from it. I think people are very compassionate about story-telling and I felt good about that.
HF: What’s next for the two of you? Do you have any future plans to work together or are you moving on to personal projects now?
AY: I’ve a long long list of ideas of projects I’d love to get made. Working on some developments with HBO and an Apple series this year, and some documentary developments that I’m doing, exploring all kinds.
I would like to spend a lot of time making projects in Appalachia and Kentucky, absolutely. AndI’m heading to New York tomorrow to go to work on a project on Broadway that I can’t talk about quite yet.
SR: I’m working on a short, personal, animated documentary called Mama Has a Mustache about being gender nonconforming and pregnant.
I am interested in working on a project in the future about queer Appalachia. I’d love to continue to work with folks from hillbilly and Deep Down, such as Silas House, Jason Howard and others with whom I’ve had a deep personal and creative connection over the years. It’d be amazing to align my two favorite communities in one film; the LGBT community and Appalachia.
Hart Fowler is a freelance journalist and former publisher of 16 Blocks Magazine who has written for The Roanoke Times, C-Ville Weekly, Raleigh Magazine, Smokey Mountain Living, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Blue Ridge Outdoors.