Appalachia isn't dead; it just needs reinforcements

Photo by Gage Skidmore

On Wednesday nights, cars thicken a narrow road in Bristol, Va. They’re drawn by a nondescript white building; more like a warehouse than a place you’d expect people to gather. But the warehouse is actually Impact International Church. Its pastor, Ryan LeStrange, says that he is an apostle of the Lord and a prophet, and he can work miraculous healings.

So people say.

My parents, who live further down the road, don’t believe it. “Oh, the Lord can heal,” they tell me; “just not like that.” Not in a warehouse by the side of the road. But the parking lot is always full on Wednesday nights, and the last time I went home, I saw the crowd had grown so large volunteers directed traffic.

LeStrange, his flock, and my parents live in Bristol, Virginia, roughly ten minutes from the Tennessee border. It’s the biggest town for miles in this part of central Appalachia. People drive in from the coal towns to go to the SuperWalmart, or to work minimum wage jobs at places like Target and Petsmart.

It is a deeply conservative place. On Super Tuesday, Donald Trump swept the Republican primary here. In the Fightin’ Ninth, my home congressional district, he won by 20 points. He won our neighbors, Tennessee and Kentucky, and is projected to win West Virginia and North Carolina.

From a Washington, D.C. standpoint, Appalachia’s support for Trump matches conventional wisdom. The region is a Tea Party bastion: It reliably elects state and federal representatives who run on platforms formidably antagonistic to government intervention. And, as a whole, the region has yet to truly reckon with its lingering racism. A glance at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual map of hate groups shows an uncomfortable number still operate in the mountains. Trump’s immigrant-bashing doesn’t outrage many members of its conservative White majority.

But back home, my mother detects a note of desperation.

“Nothing’s working, that’s why people are voting for Donald Trump,” she tells me. “They’re so desperate, they want to see what’s broken fixed. I’m not saying there’s nothing racist about it, I’m not that naïve. But they’re desperate. They think he can bring back the jobs.”

In a region already one foot over the precipice, the nation’s most famous boss is proof that the American Dream survives. But Trumpmania isn’t uniform. In Democratic primaries, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is generally viewed as further to the left than his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did unexpectedly well in some of southwest Virginia’s most rural and isolated counties.

Sanders won the Democratic primary in Grayson, Floyd, Radford, Warren, and Wise counties, and achieved similar results in northeast Tennessee, winning Carter, Sevier, Unicoi, and Washington counties. He is projected to win West Virginia handily on May 10, even though its popular Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, has endorsed Clinton.

How has the nation’s most famous democratic socialist swayed so many in this conservative stronghold?

The people of Appalachia are looking for miracles. Like the Psalmist, they lift up their eyes to the hills; whence does their help come? From God and his warehouse apostles, yes, but in a pinch, perhaps the government will do.


To understand Appalachia’s paradoxical politics, you must understand that the government is both a source of its crisis and a potential solution to its problems. Throughout its history, the federal and state levels of our democratic system have either failed to intervene when necessary, or intervened with policies that added to the region’s distress.

Coal is the industry that marks us most indelibly in the public mind, but it is bane as well as boon. Although government regulations ostensibly hold mining companies accountable to certain safety and environmental standards, agencies often fail to enforce those laws. In 2014, a NPR and Mine Safety and Health News joint investigation reported that regulatory bodies had failed to collect millions of dollars in unpaid fines from companies that repeatedly broke the law.

In practice, this means miners are forced to return again and again to dangerous mines. From the investigation: “Delinquent mines reported close to 4,000 injuries in the years they failed to pay, including accidents that killed 25 workers and left 58 others with permanent disabilities.”

But increasing job losses leave Appalachian workers with few alternatives. The area’s coal and manufacturing industries have suffered in recent years. Part of the blame may rest with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Economists still debate NAFTA’s effects on national labor, but some critics say it allowed factories and coal mines to easily move production from Appalachia and similar regions.

“Studies of NAFTA-related job losses have shown that 766,030 actual and potential jobs were lost in the United States between 1993 and 2000. 72 percent of these jobs were in the manufacturing sector. Of these losses, 279,141—or 36 percent—occurred in Appalachian states,” the Commission on Religion in Appalachia (CORA) reported in 2005.

Manufacturing’s decline coincided with the slow strangling death of coal. CORA, quoting the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), states that from 1990 to 2005 the number of working miners in central Appalachia dropped from 95,417 to 44,529.

Coal’s demise, of course, is inevitable: It is a finite resource, and its depletion is coterminous with competition from natural gas and other alternative sources of energy. In coal production as in manufacturing, automation has reduced the need for manual labor while increasing overall productivity.

These job losses—whether they were due to NAFTA, industry advances or a combination of both factors—destabilized the region’s economy. Welfare reform compounded the problem.

In 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which replaced traditional welfare with time-limited block grants to the states. These grants, titled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF, required states to, among other things, establish “numerical goals” for reducing out of wedlock pregnancies and require TANF recipients to work.

Clinton said at the time the act would “end welfare as we know it.” In a sense, it succeeded. But in Appalachia the results have been dire.

In 2004, sociologists Deborah Thorne, Ann Tickamyer, and Mark Thorne wrote in the Journal of Appalachian Studies that in the first eight years since TANF’s genesis, it had displaced "the public assistance formerly available to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population, poor families and especially women with young children.”

The transition to TANF benefits, they concluded, had only perpetuated Appalachia’s poverty problem. “In remote rural communities, where jobs are scarce, jobs with benefits even scarcer, and there is little likelihood of serious investment, growth, or economic development, the loss of a significant portion of the safety net implies serious consequences for the economic condition of poor people in poor places,” they wrote.

Little has changed since Thorne, Tickamyer and Thorne completed their 2004 research. In fact, Appalachia’s trouble seems to track with national trends. In 2015, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released a report revealing that from 1996 to 2011, the number of families living at or below $2 a day doubled nationwide. Of every 100 families in poverty in 2013, a mere 26 received TANF benefits.

It’s impossible to claim that the impact of welfare reform has been uniformly negative for the region. But it is clear that the policy failed to significantly improve Appalachia’s economic health.

This year, the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Innovation Group (EIG) awarded the Fightin’ Ninth a score of 97.3 out of 100 on a scale of economic distress, making it the tenth most distressed congressional district in the country. It touches eight districts in four states; only two of these districts received relatively optimistic scores in the fifties. The rest ranged from 83 to 99.

EIG ranks districts based on median income, unemployment numbers and the number of adults who have received high school degrees, among other factors. It paints a grim landscape for central Appalachia: there are few jobs, and the jobs that are available pay little. It is difficult to require welfare recipients to work when there is no work for hundreds of miles.


Appalachians have reason to be angry. Sanders and Trump reassure them that their grievances are heard and solutions are at hand. But where Trump offers resentful Whites a scapegoat—immigrants—Sanders invokes an activist populism familiar to the region. Mountain communities have always been poor, and very often exploited, but they have not always passively accepted their lot.

In 1913, Mother Jones arrived in Mingo County, West Virginia to urge miners to unionize with UMWA. The famous organizer did not have to work hard. Mingo’s miners had serious grievances: Coal companies exerted strict control over mining towns. Miners and their families were required to shop at company stores. When paychecks arrived, companies deducted the cost of their housing and tools from the sum.

UMWA subsequently battled coal companies for control in a war that stretched the better part of a decade and frequently turned bloody. It culminated in the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1920; many people died, most of them miners. UMWA organizers were tried for treason.

UMWA and Mother Jones helped establish a particularly rich vein of revolutionary mountain politics that inspired later activists.

Decades after Matewan, post-WWII automation left many laborers without work and forced them to take to the road: The so­called “hillbilly highway” created communities of Appalachians in exile from Ohio to Chicago.

As Patrick King wrote in Viewpoint magazine last year, Chicago’s transplanted Appalachians created the Young Patriots Organization (YPO) in 1968 as a response to poor living conditions and police brutality. They eventually helped found the Rainbow Coalition alongside the Illinois Black Panther Party and the Young Lords.

According to King, the YPO prided itself on a distinctively Appalachian identity and modelled itself after the Black Panthers. It released its own version of the Panthers’ 11 Point Program, and in it declared its “revolutionary solidarity with all the oppressed peoples of this and all other countries and races defeats the divisions by the narrow interests of cultural nationalism.”

The YPO wasn’t flawless. Its members briefly attempted to reclaim the Confederate battle flag as a left-wing revolutionary symbol (they retired that effort by 1970, acknowledging that the flag could not be divorced from its racist history). But it understood that the problems afflicting poor whites—incarceration, poverty, exploitation—were facets of a pervasive oppression that afflicted other populations in even greater measure.

Old conflicts periodically resurface: In 1984, a fight between Massey Energy and UMWA strikers in West Virginia became violent. Someone shot at an UMWA organizer’s home; a sniper murdered a non-union truck driver.

Contemporary Appalachian activism is not typically so violent, though it still often centers on coal. Mountain Justice, Radical Action for Mountains’ and People’s Survival, Women Unite to End Mountaintop Removal, and many other organizations and individuals protest the industry’s disastrous environmental effects and its continuing exploitation of local labor in West Virginia.

Other regional activists focus on social issues dear to progressives. Organizations like the Appalachian Community Fund provide grants to support anti-racist work in mountain communities. Local volunteers fight for sexual assault survivors and for LGBTQ rights, among other causes; regional colleges like East Tennessee State University, Emory & Henry College, and the University of Virginia at Wise boast active feminist and pro-LGBTQ rights groups.

Rees Shearer, who’s worked in environmentalist activism and electoral politics in Washington County, Va., since 1971, says local progressives still face significant obstacles despite the region’s history and recent gains. He tells me the de­unionization of coal mines is part of the problem.

“The political education that had been conducted by UMWA and [the AFL­CIO] Committee for Political Education has been co-opted by the coal companies,” he says. “It led to a litany of propaganda about the war on coal.”

Shearer says he’s achieved some recent success by branding historically progressive issues as non-partisan concerns. He currently chairs Washington Independent Neighbors (WIN), which opposes several controversial development projects that could have detrimental environmental effects. Even though most of its organizers lean left, WIN omitted progressive language in its literature and managed to unite a broad coalition of locals against the projects.

Though he says he’s a bit surprised by Sanders’ local victories, his response is emphatic when I ask him if he thinks the right local candidate could succeed by adopting Sanders­like positions on economics and the environment.

“Definitely,” he says. “The economic and environmental issues are where there is common ground; there isn’t any on social issues.”

He adds, “If you really ran a progressive candidate—went door to door—and talked about how the General Assembly and the Republicans from southwest Virginia left us high and dry with the coal industry in tatters but denied it, we could begin a visioning process.”

It would take several election cycles and the candidate would have to run as an independent, he says, but it is the best way to renew the political education UMWA and other left-leaning groups began a century ago. And eventually, social issues like LGBT rights and reproductive justice would be easier sells too.

Sanders’ Appalachian successes seem to support Shearer’s theory. On the campaign trail, he’s been frequently criticized for campaign rhetoric that appears to focus on economic inequality to the exclusion of other issues. But in mountain communities, this is precisely the focus that resonates.

“Say a prayer for the dead,” Mother Jones once wrote. “But fight like hell for the living.”

Appalachia isn’t dead, and it needs something more than a miracle: It needs reinforcements. It will rally around whichever candidate—or movement—promises it relief.