There’s no better way to understand everyday life in eastern Kentucky than with these few numbers: In electoral district “Kentucky 05” the average income is less than $30,000, and the life expectancy is 71 years. According to a Gallup study, quality of life is the lowest among all 434 congressional districts. For stark comparison, in some regions of California, the average income is almost $78,000, and many celebrate their 85th birthday.
Only every tenth resident in eastern Kentucky has a college degree; more than 40 percent can be considered obese. In Harlan County, nearly a third of the population can be considered poor — and 7 percent receive disability assistance. Hal Rogers has represented the district since 1981 — and the Republican could do nothing to stop the decline. Nevertheless, in 2014, he received more than three times as many votes as his opponent. His voters believe that Obama despises the backwoods of Appalachia and is leading a “war on coal.” Therefore, the president, and not the price on the world market, is to blame.
A visit to Harlan County is a trip to an America where many think climate change is a fantasy, and weapon ownership is a human right. It is that part of America where there are no frappuccinos and organic groceries, a part that is never seen by many U.S. citizens, let alone foreigners. Poverty may be more extreme here, but the same convictions are common everywhere in rural America, and they influence the self-image of the Republicans.
The Young Mother
Kimberly Shephard loves her hometown more than anything: “The mountains give me security.” For five generations, her family has lived in Harlan County, and for a long time, her relatives earned good money in the mines. But since the 1970s, the coal production has fallen, the jobs becoming fewer and fewer. The people feel the effects of mining directly: “My grandpa died of black lung, I had to watch him die my entire life. Grandma still fights with the mining company for compensation. They only think about their profits.”
This obsession with profits sickens Shephard. She is currently doing an apprenticeship as a welder and is also working on her college degree: “The people don’t understand what it means to live off an hourly wage of $7.25. In 2014, I earned $7,900 — that is so damn little.” Many of her high school friends have long left Harlan County, but she remains: “I could earn more elsewhere, but then I would have to leave my family behind, and that’s not fair.”
No Stable Internet, Barely Any Healthy Food
Even a university degree helps little. The father of her 6-year-old daughter cannot find a job in the area despite having a bachelors degree. And even if the roads were OK, what company would plant itself in a mountainous region where there is no stable cellphone network? Nothing else shows how disconnected Harlan County is, she believes: “For my online courses, I need stable Internet. I pay for 3G, but I have actually failed exams because the Internet dropped.”
Because there are no cafes in the region, our interview takes place in the fast food restaurant Dairy Queen. Here, there is a $5 deal with a burger, fries, ice cream with chocolate sauce, and as much soda as one can drink. Shepherd eats differently: She is a vegan and would gladly buy fresh groceries, but they are hard to come by or very expensive due to low demand. Experts describe Harlan County as a food desert.
Despite everything, Kimberley Shepherd won’t let herself get down. The 30-year-old is frustrated that many in the region use Obama as a scapegoat, but she keeps herself out of politics. She has involved herself with the nongovernmental organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth for environmental advocacy so that the beautiful surroundings will last — and so that maybe tourists will even eventually visit eastern Kentucky.
The Conservative Politicians
In Whitesburg, Letcher County, on the other side of the mountains, Dee Davis runs the Center for Rural Strategies. “Eastern Kentucky will not become a tourist mecca,” says the 64-year-old. The competition is much too great. The people will have to accept one thing: “Coal is a part of our history, it belongs to our heritage. It has carried many out of poverty and into the middle class. It was our friend — but it surely is not our future.”
Davis would like to try every proposal to promote eastern Kentucky. Server farms have been housed in the abandoned mines; the region could promote renewable energy or high-tech industry. Everything must be done to stop emigration. With better infrastructure, fast Internet and good hospitals new people could be attracted to eastern Kentucky. “We cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to coal,” he demands militantly.
Reducing eastern Kentucky to coal – the Republicans have no problem doing just that in far away Washington. Mitch McConnell, the most powerful of all the conservative senators, comes from Kentucky and speaks constantly of the Democrats’ “war on coal.” In this “war on coal,” he always fights on the front lines — for the interests of the miners.
When Obama introduced his plan this summer to considerably reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants by 2030, McConnell advised the 50 state governors to simply ignore the instructions of the hated Environmental Protection Agency. At the beginning of the Paris Climate Conference, in a newspaper column, McConnell denied the president the right to sign an international treaty. Should Obama do that anyway, then he, McConnell, will block a “yes” in Congress — to protect America’s workers.
In Kentucky, under the slogan #Coalkeepsthelighton, lobbyists paint a horror scenario, in which America sinks into darkness if environmental requirements are implemented. The slogan “Friends of Coal” — the name of a lobby group — can be found on the front license plate of many cars.
Anger at the Democrats is particularly great among those who once earned good money in the mines and are now out on the street. They are people such as former miner James Walker, who says, “I blame Obama. I blame him real bad. Before Obama ever came around, coal was doing good. Obama killed it.” Walker does not shy away from cursing in front of running cameras: “I wish he’d step off the face of the Earth. Wouldn’t hurt my feelings none.” And those who still have a job in the mines say to Fox News: “Mr. President, would you please leave us coal miners alone and let us work and provide for our families.”
Why the Image of the Miner Triggers Such Strong Emotions
According to Dee Davis, the influence of the coal industry in states like Kentucky or West Virginia is greater than its economic power justifies. The Democrats have not recognized that the image of the miner triggers such great emotions. “He is a brave man who goes under the earth in order to provide for his family. Many consider the miners heroes,” says Davis. Memorials to honor mine workers can be found everywhere in Harlan County and the neighboring districts, and many Americans whose grandfathers, fathers or uncles worked in the mines sympathize with the miners — even when they have long since moved to the city.
On top of all that, many people in eastern Kentucky and other Appalachian regions have the impression that they are being neglected and laughed at by the rest of the country, and above all by the elites on the East and West coasts. “This feeling of anger is very powerful and unfortunately has a long tradition in U.S. politics,” says Dee Davis. It is easier to demonize an opponent (Barack Obama) than to present real solutions.
Ironically, Republicans dominate in Harlan County today, as in the rest of Kentucky, although more citizens officially belong to the Democratic Party. The county was the stage for a bitter labor struggle: In the 1930s, the National Guard advanced on striking miners so brutally that four people died. Since then, everyone knows the term “Bloody Harlan.” In the 1970s, strikes were also brutally put down — events that inspired the Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County, USA” and the country song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Today, all miners in Kentucky belong to a union.
According to Dee Davis, the fact that employment in the mines has been declining for a long time and even George W. Bush could not have saved the coal jobs has been suppressed. “When Clinton left the White House in 2001, there were 33,000 mine workers here. At the end of 2008, the number had sunk to 15,000 — and now we have reached 7,000,” he explains. Certainly recognition is growing among local politicians that something has to change. “The best business I’ve seen in town lately has been the U-Haul business because people are moving out,” says Dan Mosley. He has been the county commissioner since November 2014, and has called upon his fellow citizens to “wipe away our tears.”
Mosley is a Democrat, and he wants to cooperate with Republicans to improve life in Harlan County. There are indeed state-funded investment programs with nice names (“Promise Zone” or “SOAR – Shaping Our Appalachian Region”), but they won’t be able to change much. Even Hal Rogers, the former conservative representative, has publicly admitted that coal alone can no longer bring more jobs to the mountain region. When Wal-Mart opened its supermarket in Harlan, more than 1,000 job applications were sent. In Whitesburg a giant poster reminds youth of how they can improve their futures: “Be a winner — go to school!”
The Nostalgic Mayor
Harlan County will probably not see times as carefree as they were during the coal boom era. When Wanda Humphrey speaks about her childhood in Benham, her eyes light up: “Every child should grow up like I did. It was like paradise.” Today, the elderly woman is mayor of the town, which for decades belonged to the International Harvester company. The company took care of everything — provided fresh groceries for the local businesses and attracted the best teachers and doctors with high salaries.
Humphrey compares her childhood with a word that is rarely heard in the United States: “It was like Communism.” Families lived in houses that belonged to the company, and aside from the overhead lights (“50 cents a month per room”), everything was free, she remembers. In the 1930s and ‘40s, until about 1949, the people who lived here were more or less carefree, says the elderly woman.
The Constant Search for Prospects
Wanda Humphrey has returned to her birthplace after decades of living in Texas, where her husband worked in the oil industry. She is the mayor because no one else wanted to take up the office, and the problems are unavoidable.
Where thousands of worker families once lived, only 490 people remain — almost all beyond their 50th birthday. The community is in debt, and the young people are leaving their hometown. That has little to do with Obama, she says, but rather with a lack of prospects.