President Barack Obama’s legacy in Appalachia is far more than being a foil for politicians playing the coal card.
The coal miners and young people who are learning computer coding in Paintsville and Pikeville are part of Obama’s legacy. So are local food producers and tourism entrepreneurs, businesses that will grow because of better access to the internet, and thousands of working people who for the first time can see a doctor or dentist.
Kentuckians may remember the “war on coal,” which more than anything was a PR invention by the coal industry.
But, under all that noise and flak, the Obama administration was helping seed an economic transition. That transition is still a fragile bud, just pushing into the light, with a long way to go. But it’s something the region needed long before the coal industry’s latest bust.
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President-elect Donald Trump should honor the many votes he received in Kentucky and West Virginia by supporting and expanding the efforts that are underway.
Many groups and nonprofits already were deeply involved in economic transition work in Appalachia. Obama’s people heard and amplified them and brought resources and high-ranking attention to the challenges.
Trump has promised to bring back coal jobs, a promise that our own Sen. Mitch McConnell started retreating from right after the election.
But even if all of the almost 10,000 mining jobs that were lost in Eastern Kentucky over the last five years were replaced with something just as high-paying, the region would still be economically distressed and home to this rich nation’s poorest people.
Under Obama, the Appalachian Regional Commission’s highest funding in 30 years — $146 million — is juicing an array of ideas and projects, including SOAR, the 54-county network whose mission is to spark innovation and opportunity in Kentucky.
The federal dollars are leveraging investment in the region from the private sector and from nonprofits, including the Appalachian Funders Network.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made Berea the site for unveiling $401 million in financing for “capacity building” in the poorest rural communities. Private lenders, including the Bank of America, will guarantee part of the loans, and seven philanthropies will provide $22 million.
Interestingly, Democrat Obama’s legacy is entwined with that of Republican Hal Rogers, who just ended six years as House appropriations chairman, a post that enabled him to steer dollars and attention to Kentucky.
Rogers and the White House pushed hard for Congress to enact the RECLAIM Act, which would free up $1 billion that’s already owed to Appalachian states for reparing historic environmental damage by the coal industry. Rogers is expected to renew his sponsorship of RECLAIM. Trump should lend his support
If Congress had put up more money, more could have been accomplished. But the administration found ways. Poor places are traditionally at a disadvantage in competing for federal grants. Obama created Promise Zones which give poor places extra points in the competition for funding.
Thanks to the latest round of Obama administration grants, mine electricians in Kentucky will be retooling their skills to work in energy efficiency and the University of Pikeville’s new optometry school will be spinning off jobs.
Obama set an important precedent of support for local economies disrupted by the shift away from fossil fuels.
And his health-care law was a godsend in a region that suffers high rates of disease and addiction. In addition to subsidies for buying health insurance and expanded Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act also guarantees benefits for coal miners who have worked underground for 15 years and have black lung and their widows, at a time when the debilitating disease is on the rise and too many sick miners have been unjustly denied benefits by coal company lawyers and doctors.
Poor places tied to a single declining industry have a long, hard fight to create opportunities and attract investment.
The infusion of federal dollars, the new ideas supported by the Obama administration and smart cooperation among federal agencies helped replenish something that’s long been in short supply: hope.