A bulldozer operates atop a coal mound in Shelbiana, Ky, June 3, 2014. In Kentucky, there’s still plenty of coal underground, but it has become too costly and environmentally damaging to extract it.

Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Poverty Is a Way of Life in Appalachia. But This State Proves That It Doesn't Have to Be

In the first of a three-part series, NationSwell investigates if there's life after a single-industry economy goes bust.

In 1973, 180 coal miners in Harlan County, Ky., stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the picket line. They had been arrested and beaten with nightsticks; their wives had lain down in front of trucks and been thrown in jail by state troopers. Repeating the struggle their fathers waged during strikes in 1931 that earned the county the moniker “Bloody Harlan,” these miners, employees of Duke Power-owned Brookside Mines, endured 13 months of fighting for the right to unionize and earn a living wage, around $45 a day.

One young miner on strike, 23-year-old Lawrence Jones, died — shot by a mine supervisor — before coal operators caved to national pressure and accepted a new union contract. Even then, victory was short-lived. Just 30 years later, there’s not a single union miner working in Harlan County; in fact, there’s no union miners left in all of Kentucky, a region of Central Appalachia once considered the heart of coal country.

The story of Central Appalachia has a recurring plot line: economic boom, devastating bust, public acknowledgement, government assistance, boom, bust….and repeat. Last May, when President Barack Obama announced the launch of Promise Zones, an economic redevelopment plan to bring federal dollars to five regions with persistent poverty, those in Kentucky (the first rural pilot) recalled programs from other commanders in chief: FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Johnson’s War on Poverty and Clinton’s Empowerment Zones. Would this redevelopment be any different? Could it finally drag the mountain region out of poverty?

A grinning miner surrounded by National Guardsmen, Harlan, Ky., 1939. John L. Carter/Courtesy University of Kentucky Special Collections

A single-industry economy in southeastern Kentucky has led to a reliance on mining at the expense of all else. Even the area’s professional class — consisting of lawyers, bankers and doctors (some who certified or denied claims for disability and Black Lung benefits) — built their businesses around mining. For low-wage workers, coal mining promised decent work, often without the need for multiple diplomas, part of the reason why eastern Kentucky has no major research institution. The land has suffered, too. As strip mining became the cheapest way to extract coal, virgin hillsides were slashed and rarely replaced, leading to erosion and floods.

But natural resources run out — or become inaccessible. In Kentucky’s case, there’s still plenty of coal underground, but it’s too costly and environmentally damaging to extract it. As the Environmental Protection Agency tightens its regulations in what some call a “War on Coal,” the state has lost 7,000 direct mining jobs since 2012. Among residents of counties bordering Harlan, it’s said there’s a month-long wait to get a U-Haul because so many people are leaving town. The rumor’s unfounded (you can get a truck tomorrow), but it speaks to the worry that neighbors are fleeing, a fear of being stuck behind since no money means no development — in infrastructure or human capital. Fourth-generation coal miners in Harlan are hanging up their helmets and moving to urban areas with better employment prospects. The county’s population fell from a height of 75,275 to its lowest since 1920, currently around 28,000.

That’s not to say everything has been stagnant in the half-century since John F. Kennedy, a young senator from New England, first drew national attention to Central Appalachia on the presidential campaign trail. There’s been “progress in reducing isolation and providing assistance” for development, says Kostas Skordas, director of regional planning and research for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state commission created in 1965, but the pace at which improvements happen is much slower than elsewhere in the nation. “Challenges still remain. Rural areas may progress, but in many cases, metro areas are progressing faster. The gap between Appalachian communities and the rest of the country has grown larger. Education is an example of that, health is an example of that.”

Appalachia is paying the price “in providing the cheap power that built the modern American economy,” Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, tells the Associated Press. ”The region has paid it in spoiled water and degraded land and black lung disease, broken backs, torn-up roads, blasted mountains,” issues that make it harder to rebuild a diversified economy.

Nine miners sitting in a coal mine, Harlan, Ky., 1939 John L. Carter/Courtesy University of Kentucky Special Collections

A region suffering from decades of persistent poverty due to an exploitative history of resource extraction is nothing new. (There’s the Black Belt of plantations from Maryland to Texas, the Mississippi River Delta, the Texas Colonias along the Mexican border and Indian Country in the Four Corners and the Dakotas, to name a few.) And of course, long before cheap coal ran out, the Iron Belt began rusting. But one state has been working for nearly 75 years to prepare mining towns for the inevitable day when resources run dry.

Minnesota’s Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a regional economic development agency, was founded by the state legislature in 1941 as a direct response to the one-sector economy in northeastern Minnesota falling apart during the Great Depression.

“Northeastern Minnesota has historically been largely dependent on a single industry, iron ore mining,” Mark Phillips, commissioner of IRRRB, tells NationSwell in an email. “The jobs of thousands of people and the economies of dozens of communities across the region have relied on iron ore mining and are impacted by technology or market changes within the industry.”

Iron-ore mining was once so pervasive in the region that a powdery, deep red dust blanketed entire towns — houses, cars, clothes. Today, IRRRB’s work is considered a public leader in pioneering economic diversification, land reclamation and social services like workforce development. Regional planning by the state agency enabled coordinated development, drawing federal attention and funding — bringing about long-term success that wouldn’t have been possible with isolated efforts.

That’s not to say there haven’t been missteps along the way. In the ’40s, one strategy they chose — diversifying mining operations by expanding from iron to taconite — was a booming success; agricultural experiments cultivating berries, rutabagas and potatoes, on the other hand, largely proved a bust. Eventually, timber (reviving forests that had been logged) and tourism (taking advantage of the state’s 10,000 lakes) developed as profitable sectors. Money paid for new educational facilities, focusing in particular on postsecondary vocational training.

IRRRB’s investment in human capital (something lacking in Appalachia, studies have shown) — education and workforce development — has paid off large dividends. “IRRRB programs and projects have helped existing businesses in the region remain competitive, helped attract a wide range of new jobs and companies to northeastern Minnesota,” Phillips says. Their work “increased the region’s quality of life within communities and assisted in supporting innovative educational programs in our schools and colleges.”

Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat in office since 2007, and a congressman, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, an 18-term Republican, heard about Minnesota’s success. Working together on a federal-state partnership to redefine southeastern Kentucky (Shaping Our Appalachian Region or SOAR), they held a conference for roughly 2,000 people from across the rural area, remembers Gerry Roll, executive director of Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, a philanthropic community foundation. Those in attendance heard this message: “Coal is still important, it’ll be around for a while, but we need to start thinking beyond that. We need to think about new ideas, with broadband, with infrastructure, with things that will bring people to our region.”

Miners leaving a mine entrance in a cart with police watching in Harlan, Ky., 1939. John L. Carter/Courtesy University of Kentucky Special Collections

It became a watershed moment. “All of a sudden, everybody in the room was saying we need to do something different. We have to work together and work harder. I think there was an acknowledgment — not only from a Democrat and a Republican talking to each other, but old people and young people, environmentalists and coal miners talking to each other — that we may not agree on everything, but we need to start where we can,” Roll says. “I think the SOAR initiative gave us permission to think more broadly, outside of our usual box, and the economy was really an opportunity for us to say we’re better together. These 120 little fiefdoms that Kentucky has aren’t going to make it alone.”

The hardscrabble miners in Harlan County once proved that organizing into a union could win them major concessions from the coal mine operators. Now, a hard push for bottom-up change through Obama’s Promise Zones could once again prove the power of banding together.

READ MORE:

Part 2: The Initiative That’s Bringing Appalachia into the 21st Century

Part 3: Stories of Redemption in America’s Coal Country

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.