Appalachia Today

Welch, WV, in 1946, the county seat and largest town in McDowell County, WV, once the world’s largest coal producing county, at a time when coal was booming, prior to the mechanization of the mines which produced widespread and chronic unemployment. (Source: Russell Lee via U.S. National Archives)

Welch, WV, in 1946, the county seat and largest town in McDowell County, WV, once the world’s largest coal producing county, at a time when coal was booming, prior to the mechanization of the mines which produced widespread and chronic unemployment.
(Source: Russell Lee via U.S. National Archives)

Welch, WV in the 1990s, whose population had diminished by 80% from the 1940s.
(Source: World Socialist Web Site)

Coal has been the driving economic force and the major source of employment in Appalachia for over 150 years. Now, however, with the declining demand for coal due to cheaper alternative energy sources such as natural gas and the declining Appalachian coal reserves, the coal industry can no longer provide the region with strong economic dynamic. The main use of coal in the US is to produce electric power yet it is estimated to generate only 27% of the electric power by 2030. Meanwhile, the once plentiful coal reserves in the great Appalachian mountains have been depleted and are almost exhausted, which in turn decreased the productivity and increased mining costs.

In Appalachia, poverty and coal mining are forever intertwined in the American mind. In the views of many Americans, the word “Appalachia” is a metaphor for chronic rural poverty in this country. From the opening mines and the arrival of railroad in the late 1800s, the coal and land company has tightly controlled every aspect of the region such as housing, education, health systems, and politics. The boom and bust economic cycles of the industry have periodically devastated the region and the mechanization started in the 1950s cost hundreds of thousands of miners their jobs. The chronic poverty has plagued Appalachia for over a century, and it has proven so resistant to attempt after attempt to alleviate it, most famously in the “War on Poverty” announced with much fanfare by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. However, poverty has never stopped haunting Appalachia since the “War” with pressing problems such as low levels of income, malnutrition, ill health, increased levels of morbidity and mortality, limited education, inadequate housing, a degraded environment, drug abuse and  the like. Today, about one in six people in Appalachia live below the poverty line. In central Appalachia, the median household income is less than $30,000, or less than 60% of the nation’s median income. In 2015, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) classified 93 Appalachian counties as “distressed,” a criterion based on the county’s unemployment rate, poverty rate and per capita income.

Prior to the rise of the coal industry in Appalachia in the 1870s, the Appalachian population was sparse and primarily engaged in subsistence farming. The arrival of railroads in the 1870s dramatically changed Appalachia for with the railroads came the coal companies and land agents who over time created a single-resource economy on which the region remains largely dependent today. Unfortunately for the people and environment of Appalachia, the coal industry proved disastrously unstable. The large-scale industrial coal mining which had come to dominate the region by the early twentieth century was, from the outset, controlled primarily by outside capital and speculators who purchased large swathes of coal-bearing land and/or the minerals and then invested the capital necessary to exploit the massive coal resources of the region. In Central Appalachia, they largely retain that ownership to this day. Absentee ownership of the surface (including the minerals) or only the minerals remains extensive – in 11 of the key coal counties in central Appalachia absentee entities still own more than 50 % of the surface land in each of the counties. Absentee ownership of the region’s land and mineral also has significant social and economic impact on the region. For centuries the wealth created by natural resources has flowed out of the mineral-producing regions as corporate profit without bringing sufficient tax income to the region while local residents have been exploited as cheap labor. Large corporate and out of state land holdings restricted access to the land by the people who lived there, increased the political influence of corporate and out of state interests, and decreased civic engagement in Appalachian communities. The land ownership pattern also severely limited the tax base for the counties , as well as the options for alternative land use. For centuries the wealth created by natural resources has flowed out of the mineral-producing regions as corporate profit without bringing sufficient tax income to the region while local residents have been exploited as cheap labor. Corporate-owned lands tend to have artificially low market values, because land transfers between corporations were rarely made public or registered at the county courthouses, which allow companies to pay property taxes at a lower rate.


As a response to the coal company’s exploitation, the coal miners in Appalachia were one of the earliest to start the labor movements in the US starting in the early 1900s. Miners typically rented company-owned houses from the coal company and were paid in scrip, which could only be exchanged at the company store for often overpriced goods. In addition to being exploited economically, miners also faced great safety problems. According to historian David Alan Corbin, during late 1800s and early 1900s, mines in West Virginia had the highest death rate nationwide and an accident rate five times higher than any European country. Coal bosses also employed private, armed mine guards to enforce rules and suppress union activity. This oppressive work environment led miners of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to support unionization and demand improved working and living conditions. In 1890, the United Mine Workers of America was founded. The UMWA struggled against great odds to achieve better wages, greater safety and fair working conditions: the eight-hour day in 1898, collective bargaining rights in 1933, health and retirement benefits in 1946, and health and safety protections in 1969. However, the UMWA started to lose members and its political power to mechanization after World War I and more recently to the alternative energy sources. By 2014, UMWA was left with 20,000 active coal miners while responsible for pensions and health care benefits for 89,000 retired miners and their families. The slow decline of labor power gave coal companies great power to set working conditions and mine how they pleased. The results were disastrous both for the miners and the people and environment of the coalfields.

The exploitation was not only economical but also physical. Appalachia has the most dangerous jobs in the nations such as mining and timbering, and as a result Appalachia, and particularly central Appalachia, has the highest rates of diseases in leads the nation in many of the most serious health conditions including cancer, diabetes and obesity. In 2014, Kentucky had the highest death rate from cancer in the country. Cervical, colorectal and lung cancer rates are much higher in Appalachia than nationwide. Heart disease in Kentucky was 84% higher than the national average, diabetes was 47% higher and lung cancer deaths were 83% higher. A direct link between coal mining and health problems also occurs in the coal mining counties where mountaintop removal mining is practiced. Since 2007, studies by researchers from over a dozen universities have concluded that MTR leads to higher rates of birth defects, cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Another major health problem in Appalachia directly linked to coal mining is black lung disease. In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in the prevalence of the disease, with miners working in small mining operations in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia most severely affected. While the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) only reported 99 cases of PMF in the whole country over the last five years, an NPR investigation uncovered a total of 962 cases so far this decade, through data obtained from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In addition, Appalachia is the hardest hit region by the opioid epidemic started in late 1990s with the highest overdose death rates in the nation, for example,  West Virginia became the state with the highest drug mortality rate (41.5 deaths per 100,000 people). Appalachian states account for 22 percent of the nation’s opiate related deaths between 1999 to 2013 while only representing 20 percent of the US population. In West Virginia alone, drug distributors have shipped over 780 million hydrocodone (Vicodin) and Oxoycodone (Oxycontin) pills over a six-year period which amount to 433 pain pills for every single West Virginian. In addition to Opioids, Appalachia has been plagued by “meth” as well. Starting in the 1990s, the use of “meth” spread throughout the region. By 2005, the simple “shake-and-bake” method of producing meth had gained popularity, making it easy for virtually anybody who had access to the necessary ingredients to “cook” the drug at home. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of meth labs in Kentucky more than tripled, with southeastern Kentucky particularly hard hit. Recently, after some attempts at a crackdown on pill suppliers, pill prices went up and drug dealers promptly took advantage of the situation by supplying cheap heroin, which produces a similar high as prescription painkillers. Heroin addiction has also led to more diseases being contracted through dirty needles, such as HIV and hepatitis. Among the 220 counties nationwide that are at high risk for the spread of these diseases, 54 are in Kentucky.

On top of all above problem is the housing crisis. Homeownership in Appalachia is higher than in the country as a whole with 73% of central Appalachian housing owner-occupied. The majority of these homes have been passed down from generation to generation within families. However, the general economic decline of the region has contributed to a major housing crisis in the form of a lack of livable, affordable housing and a lack of resources to repair existing old, run-down homes. Central Appalachia is mostly rural with about 55% of its population living in rural areas or small towns. As a result, tens of thousands of houses are isolated and far from major interstate highways and metropolitan areas. While the condition of these basic amenities has improved over the past decades, there are still over 15,000 homes in central Appalachia that lack complete plumbing facilities. As a result of their condition and location, most houses in the region are not as valuable assets as is typically the case in other areas of the country. Over 55% of homes in the region are worth less than $100,000, and about 18% are worth less than $50,000. Given this, it is not surprising that one type of housing that is more popular in central Appalachia than the rest of the U.S. is manufactured housing, otherwise known as mobile homes, which also have lower values and higher energy usage and as a result, the utility bills can be very high, taking up more than 30% of the owners’ monthly income. The coal industry’s decline is a significant contributing factor to the housing problems in central Appalachia and the loss of coal mining jobs has made it difficult for residents to afford even modest homes. Now that local coal mining jobs have largely disappeared, another problem that central Appalachians face is the distance between the locations of available entry-level and low-skill jobs and the rural residences of the poor, and lack of public transportation made it more challenging for Appalachians to seek alternative employment.

Another problem made reemployment challenging in Appalachia is low educational attainment. Farming, timbering and then coal mining as traditional ways of lives has also shaped Appalachians’ view towards education. From the beginning, education in Appalachia largely reflected what outsiders thought it should be and the education that was offered in most cases did not reflect any understanding or respect for the native culture. Original settlers in Appalachia had little time for schooling, with education considered a luxury for the well-to-do. Furthermore, coal mining as a well-paid occupation has never had any requirement for miners’ educational achievement. The result was that, for decades for the majority, literacy was a dream. Even today, almost 30 percent of Appalachian adults are considered functionally illiterate. Appalachian Kentucky has the largest proportion of people without a high school diploma (24.5) followed by Appalachian Virginia (19.3). Appalachian Kentucky also has the lowest percentage of high school graduate or more (75.5) followed by Appalachian Virginia (80.7). The best students tended to leave the region or, at best, migrate to urban areas in the region, causing a regional “brain-drain”, or a net export of educated persons. Education has for many years represented a “ticket out” and not an asset for the Appalachian community to build upon. What’s worse, Appalachian schools also lack sufficient funding. In 2013, the average spending per student in Kentucky public school was $9,316 compared to a national average of $10,700. The funding in Kentucky represents drastic gap between rural and urban schools as well, for example, public schools in Barbourville County, Kentucky received an average of $8,362 per student while the public K-8 school in the wealthy Jefferson County suburb of Louisville got $19,927 per student. The lack of funding and teaching quality shows up in academic performance. On the 2011 Kentucky Core Content tests, Barbourville elementary and middle school students fell below statewide averages for reading, math and science while Louisville students came in far higher than average, classified as a “Distinguished” district.

Environmentally speaking, coal mining has had and continues to have today a massive and lasting adverse impact on the land, water and resources of Appalachia. At least 10,000 miles of streams have been polluted  by acid runoff, another 10,000 miles of streams adversely impacted by sediment, thousands of miles of landslides – many on steep Appalachian slopes, there are some 25,000 miles of unreclaimed highwalls, hundreds of mountains and ridges decapitated in the name of mountain top removal, uncontrolled and devastating floods, damaged roads, coal waste fires lasting for decades, deadly waste dam collapses such as Buffalo Creek, and large-scale deforestation of much of the Appalachian region, once home to one of the world’s most diverse and unique hardwood forests. Deforestation and water pollution has also negatively impacted wildlife in Appalachia by destroying wildlife habitat, forcing animals to move and leading to disease and death. In addition, coal-fired power plants are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change and the alternation of ecosystems.

So how have Appalachians been getting by with all those difficulties daily? Appalachia has long looked to the Federal Government for assistance to “get by”, and the federal government, in its fashion, has responded. Five Appalachian states are among the 10 states most dependent on federal funding. West Virginia gets 26.2 percent of its annual income from federal government programs, Mississippi 24 percent, Kentucky 22.4 percent, and Alabama 21.8 percent. In some of the most distressed counties, such as Martin County, Kentucky, which LBJ visited in the 1960s to declare his “War on Poverty”, the income from government transfer payments exceeds all the income from wages and salaries. Martin County, KY alone has received over $2.1 billion in federal aid since 1960s. In Martin County, one-third of the 12,742 people in the county have Medicaid coverage, one-fourth of its families draw at least one disability check, and 35 percent of its people receive food stamps. In addition, black lung benefits have become one of the most important income sources for coal communities in Appalachia. Since 2009, miners in Ohio have received over $95 million in federal black lung benefits, Kentucky another $230 million and West Virginia more than $300 million. Programs such as disability and black lung have largely taken the place of direct welfare payments as the primary fund of government assistance in the region due in substantial part to the reforms to welfare made in the 1990s requiring work as part of welfare and setting time limits on payments under the welfare program. In 1989, of the 188,957 working age adults in poverty in West Virginia, 42,074 received family assistance. In 2011, among 210,000 working age adults in poverty, only 8,000 received family assistance, and those who are able to keep the benefits have seen a huge reduction on the monthly checks.

In addition to federal aids, union members also have pension and health care benefits. The UMWA was the first labor union in this country to negotiate retirement and health benefits for its members, and through the historic 1946 Krug-Lewis agreement and subsequent collective bargaining agreements, UMWA members were promised both access to good health care and adequate pensions in their retirement. Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreements, the United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds (UMWA H. & R. Funds) was established in 1947 to administer pensions and health care benefits to mining retirees. Today, the Fund provides over $613 million to about 120,000 retired miners and families in the form of pensions and medical care. However, the UMWA pension and health care benefits are now in severe jeopardy. Many coal companies which funded the pensions through periodic payments have declared bankruptcy. These bankruptcies endanger the pensions and health care benefits of retired UMWA miners since bankruptcy courts often allow coal companies to invalidate collective bargaining agreements and suspend the pension and health care benefits. Without further federal intervention, the loss of pension and healthcare benefits will further devastate thousands of families in Appalachian coal towns.

Although distant and distressed, Appalachians have always been an unneglectable political force. For well over half a century, Appalachia was strongly tied to the Democratic Party through the power of Rooseveltian working class politics. While the coal industry and corrupt county political machines dominated a good part of the state and local political scene, the machine was dominated by the Democratic Party. Working class voters were solidly Democratic, backed by a strong and sometime militant labor movement, led by the United Mine Workers of America. And as late as 1992, Bill Clinton, in winning the White House in 1992, was successful in wooing Appalachian voters in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. Only twenty four years later, in 2016, the working class, including the coal miners, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump who won by overwhelming margins in Central Appalachia. In 2016, Trump secured victory by winning 7 out of 13 battleground states that Obama had won in 2008, 2012 or in both campaigns. Trump also won Pennsylvania which had not voted for a Republican since 1988, and Wisconsin which had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. In West Virginia, Trump won 489,371 popular votes (68.6%) compared to Clinton’s 188,794 votes (26.5%), giving him his largest margin of victory in any state in the entire country. Why did such a massive shift in the political landscape occur? The answer most often advanced is that angry working class whites had seen their livelihoods destroyed by technology, global trade, and the vagaries of the coal industry, and the 2016 election reflected a deep rebellion among white working class voters in Appalachia and elsewhere. Today, there are more whites in deep poverty in this country than any other group, with some 4.2 million white children living in “extreme poverty neighborhoods.” Working-class whites are also the most pessimistic of American subgroups with 42 percent say they are doing worse than their parents – in other words, they’re living the opposite of the American dream, according the Pew Economic Mobility Project. Furthermore, Obama and Clinton’s campaigns in promoting environmental goals such as climate change (war on coal) alienated many working class whites, creating the view of many that they work instead of bread and butter working class issues, “a forgotten people” opening the way for Republicans and Trump to promise to bring the coal industry back to life as their most important task. In addition to the lack of jobs and a decent income, there appear to be deep seated cultural factors. Republicans have skillfully played upon these cultural issues – charging Democrats with coddling “welfare queens,” being soft on black crime “Willie Horton”, and giving jobs to less-qualified blacks over more-qualified whites (the battle over affirmative action). Cultural differences also arise with immigrants and issues related to Mexico and Muslims. White working class voters don’t trust Democrats to be as “tough” on these issues as Republican.

During his campaign, Trump has promised to bring coal jobs back to Appalachia, yet the reality is, whatever regulatory relief the Trump administration may provide, coal is very likely to continue to fail to compete effectively with its No.1 rival, cheaper and cleaner natural gas, a problem the Trump administration is unlikely to solve. Indeed, natural gas is likely to become an even more potent competitor under the Trump administration given the Trump proposal to deregulate gas exploration and pipeline development. Ted O’Brien, a coal analyst at Doyle Trading Consultants, questioned whether there would be any beneficial impact on coal employment due to Trump’s proposed elimination of regulatory requirements since future coal demand seems unpromising due to competition from natural gas domestically and other global coal suppliers. In addition to the sluggish coal demand, there is a second major factor behind the drastic decline in coal mining employment – automation. What used to take 100 people to produce now only needs 7 people thanks to mechanization. Therefore, no matter what plans President Trump has made to revive the Appalachian coal industry, the way of life associated with coal mining in Appalachia is gone.

What will the post-coal life be like in Appalachia? Economically speaking, in fiscal year 2016, among the 420 counties in the Appalachian region 93 are distressed, 110 at risk, 205 are in “transitional” status. In shaping a new Appalachian economy, therefore, most experts insist that the region must move away from coal, both out of necessity and the need to build a sustainable economy. Experts say that the answer is to focus on building a diversified economy. However, this comes with its own challenges. For example, entrepreneurship would have to be a major component of a diversified economy, but entrepreneurs in Appalachia currently have limited access to capital. There are no venture capital firms in West Virginia, and Forbes has declared the state the worst one in the country for doing business. The Obama administration proposed in 2015 to use $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund over the following five years to help Appalachian coal communities transition from the dying coal industry. In 2016, Obama’s federal budget included a $10 billion Power Plus Plan” to create new jobs, ensure the health and retirement of coal families, support economic diversification, and deploy carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Similarly, Clinton’s campaign proposed a different direction for the coal communities than Trump: a $30 billion package of proposals to insulate coalfield workers and their families from economic upheaval amid a transition to cleaner sources of energy. Clinton proposed to launch federal programs to ensure healthcare and pension benefits,  local school funding, and  job training and career developing. She also suggested a public private partnership to diversify local economy and reuse the industrial heritage. Despite the efforts to promote innovation and startup businesses, the projects are small-scale affairs. For example, BitSource, an internet startup, was only able to hire 10 former mine workers among 1,000 laid-off miners who applied for the jobs. It seems the future of Appalachia after coal will stay bleak.