Chad Trador was, like many people here, a onetime coal miner struggling to find work. He, his three children and his wife had stayed afloat in a tough economy for years, but after he was laid off from his job managing a convenience store, the unemployment epidemic in this region appeared to have finally reached him, too.
“The best opportunities I had were another convenience store, maybe as a clerk, making minimum wage,” said Trador, 43, reflecting on last year. “And then I heard that radio ad.”
The intensive 33-week job training program being advertised — TechHire Eastern Kentucky — promised to teach him computer coding from scratch. It would even pay him decent money while he learned. Trador signed up, and he is on track to complete the training in April, when he will emerge with a job as an Apple iOS developer.
Like many such programs and infrastructure projects in Eastern Kentucky and across Appalachia, the job-training course has the federal government’s fingerprints all over it. The Appalachian Regional Commission, an independent federal agency, helped jump-start it last year with a multi-agency $2.75 million grant to a state organization that developed it.
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But after decades of work, the commission’s future is in doubt, with the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal threatening to eliminate funding for the commissions and other rural development endeavors. Voters in this part of the country, which overwhelmingly supports President Donald Trump, could be disproportionately affected if that happens.
Trador, who voted for Trump, said the cuts are a bad idea. The job training program’s funding is secure for several more years, but the absence of further investment, he said, would worsen the region’s deep poverty.
“I think it’s horrible. I think that maybe there are some things that don't need to be funded, but don't cut things that are working, like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the work that they’ve done,” Trador said.
As a political statement, Trump’s budget proposal delighted many small-government conservatives, whose long-held wish for a more focused, less-wasteful government appeared ready to be fulfilled. As a practical political matter, though, the proposed budget’s cuts to pocketbook programs such as this one have few friends in Congress, where members’ political stock often rises and falls based on what they can do for constituents. The result is likely to be a final federal budget that bears little resemblance to the one Trump proposed.
In a statement last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wouldn’t allow any cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission, pitting the powerful Republican against a Trump budget priority and opening the door for fellow GOP lawmakers to do the same. U.S. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he understands that Congress and the White House “have a responsibility” to reduce the deficit. But he worries that cuts to such programs could hurt his Eastern Kentucky district.
“I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive,” said Rogers, who was first elected in 1981 and is Kentucky’s longest-serving member of Congress.
Because so much of the Appalachian commission’s budget — $146 million in 2016 — goes toward infrastructure projects, many of the people living in communities that have benefited from the funding are unaware of its impact. The federal funding often goes toward repairing essential services that rural towns can’t afford on their own, such as fixing broken sewer systems and revitalizing community centers.
Wendy Collins, smoking a cigarette outside a dollar store in rural Frenchburg, grew frustrated when she heard about the recommended cuts to Appalachian development. In recent years, using a community development block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a commission grant, Frenchburg has received a combined $1 million to develop a senior citizens center and a regional meal-assistance kitchen.
HUDs community development grants would disappear with Trump’s proposed budget.
“Really? Wow. So now what?” Collins said. “The government shouldn’t take it away. This place is below the poverty level. There is nothing here, and people need something to stay out of drugs.”
Collins, 45, who draws disability benefits, became emotional as she spoke about her own involvement with drugs; she estimates that she has known about 30 people who have died from opioid abuse. A Trump supporter, Collins said she couldn’t vote for him because she has a felony drug conviction. She said Trump should visit the area to see the impact of his budget for himself.
“This community has nothing,” she said. “It needs help.”
But some of Trump’s supporters in the region appear willing to accept development funding cuts because they think Trump’s broader agenda will help revitalize the region. The president has promised that he will bring the coal economy back to life by cutting industry regulations, even though experts have largely dismissed the effect that such actions would have on jobs.
“As we speak, we are preparing new executive actions to save our coal industry and to save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work,” Trump told a crowd in Louisville on Monday. “The miners are coming back.”
David Conn, 49, of West Liberty, said he is hopeful that Trump can deliver. Conn, a coal miner, said the region's problems hinge on the loss of coal jobs. He doesn't think that will be fixed with federal funding.
“It’s not Trump's fault if the money’s not there. Somebody’s got to say enough is enough,” Conn said. “People on low income that may be abusing medication. Sometimes a line’s got to be drawn. I still stand behind him with that.”
Last year, West Liberty benefited from more than $250,000 in Appalachian Regional Commission funding, which went into improvements to the area’s water infrastructure.
Johnny Kouns, of rural Inez voted for Trump and remains confident that the president can help redevelop the Appalachian economy. Kouns, 59, worked in coal fields until 2010. When the industry began to contract, he had to take an early retirement.
“I think he’s doing pretty well considering what he had to take on,” he said. “But it’s not all going to bloom overnight. There's a lot of work to be done, and there's a lot of things coming at him.”
The federal government, through the Appalachian commission, provided funding for the Roy F. Collier Community Center in town to expand its programing with the Dream Discovery Center. The center will promote science and technology education.
Many people in the region share the view that coal can be revitalized, and Trador agreed that perhaps some coal jobs could be brought back, but he said the region needs to diversify its economy. He said programs such as his job training — which served an initial class of 50, of whom about 35 continued on after the “boot camp” phase — can be scaled outward over time.
“I think coal can be part of this, but I don’t think coal is the end solution,” he said. “That’s a finite thing. As long as we have the internet, we can work anywhere.”
Some voters here conflate federal funding of assistance programs — such as food stamps — with those that finance infrastructure and community development. Shane Estes, 43, of Elliott County, grew cynical when asked about the cuts. He said the money wouldn’t make a difference in the area anyway because the culture has been too polluted with drugs. Estes, who voted for Trump, said some employers in the area have stopped drug-testing workers because that would mean they couldn’t hire anyone. And he takes issue with people using food assistance dollars on junk food.
But what about spending on infrastructure?
“Not here,” he said. “It’s going to get worse around here. It’s not going to get no better. I don’t think Trump can change this; I don’t think anything can.”
Many community leaders who have worked with the grants fear that cuts to federal funding could stymie revitalization.
Danielle King bought an abandoned building — empty since 1997 — in downtown Mount Sterling seven years ago. She restored it and turned it into a once-a-week bakery. (She’s an internal medicine doctor by trade and has since hired employees to keep the bakery open most of the week. “We’ve created jobs!”) She has become an advocate for revitalizing the entire downtown as a member of the town council, to significant effect. Walking through Mount Sterling, King spoke excitedly as she pointed to several new shops that have joined hers on the street.
“The only thing that was downtown was banks and lawyers,” she said, pointing around. “And this used to be all liquor and bars.”
Mount Sterling has been successful in cleaning up its main street. And it has benefited greatly from federal dollars: There are apartments for the elderly and disabled, financed with HUD housing grants, and a $1 million grant in 2010 helped clean up a blighted neighborhood to the north, which had become a center for crime and drug activity.
About a mile away, Valerie Scott checked on the newly installed gym floor at the Dubois Community Center, which she and a community board have helped revitalize through commission and community development grant money to serve a largely black population in the surrounding neighborhood. She said Dubois closed several years ago because of structural problems that rendered it unsafe, leaving the neighborhood without a place to gather.
“That was pretty hard for our community because it was utilized a whole lot. We’re a black community, very small but very strong in this area,” Scott said. “This is a very historical area. We wanted to revitalize it and get it back open.”
Below the main floor, another level remains stripped and dilapidated. Scott said she hopes another grant might allow the downstairs to become an educational space.
King, the doctor, is eager to accelerate the success that Mount Sterling has seen. She was reluctant to comment on Trump or the budget cuts, but she said that rather than eliminating grants, the government should be more active when communities have a plan to move forward.
“When you’re in a big city, it’s like the money just rolls in. Everybody gets a piece of the pie. But when you're a smaller place, they don’t look at you as viable so they don't want to waste money on you,” she said. “They don’t see our needs; they don’t live here.”