January 24, 2021

Appalachian Solutions: What the Government Can Do.

I’m not an economist, I don’t want to argue politics, and I probably had no business posting this. It’s the lack of TV. I have to make up my own punditry.

ABC’s 20/20 did a special on Appalachia this month, which caught my interest for three reasons:

1) They called me and asked me for some assistance. What they wanted (dramatic stories about young people), I couldn’t provide, but I was happy to be asked.

2) I’ve lived in Kentucky my whole life and in Clay County, one of America’s poorest areas, for going on 17 years. This is my home.

3) Part of the original special focused on a “sister” Christian ministry, The Christian Appalachian Project, where we have friends and with whom we do some cooperative donations.

Now ABC has done a brief follow-up in response to the accusations that the special ignored what is really going on in Appalachia of a positive nature and continued promoting the stereotypes that have become all too common in the rest of the country.

Our governor, Steve Breshears, pointed out that any urban area in the country has many of the same problems- and worse- that were pictured in the program, and the program ignored many positive changes and improvements.

In the follow up, ABC listed some of the solutions some are offering for Appalachia. They were…

“Federal stimulus money, philanthropy, green jobs, infrastructure, computers.”

I could entertain you for a while going through this list, but I’ll try to keep the snark to a minimum. A few short responses will have to do:

Federal stimulus money: If you want to see what government money will do to a culture, just come to Eastern Kentucky. The owner of a garage I used to patronize told me that he couldn’t pay his help as much as they would make on welfare and government benefits, so he had a very difficult time finding anyone to work for him. We have multi-million dollar federal projects everywhere: drug task forces, government buildings and my favorites, two federal prisons. Meanwhile, many counties are closing school facilities right and left and the ones that are open are lucky to have enough money for textbooks. The big score, of course, is a huge new high school combining as many local schools as possible into a massive PS so large you might have a good football team. (OK, there’s the snark. I’m sorry.)

Federal money comes in here by the truck full. It makes things different. It doesn’t fundamentally change people’s lives or the culture. In many cases, it makes people’s lives worse. The people working at the federal prison are not the people who are stuck in the downward spiral of this areas economic/cultural/spiritual dead end. The people who can’t work need government and community help, but the way government money is used here is frequently not in a way that changes the problems addressed in the program.

Philanthropy: See below. Fine, if tied to the right results.

Green Jobs: Employ Kermit? Oh….that kind of green. Well we do have a lot of trash to pick up, creeks to clean out, pollution to remove, etc. If you can tie this to improving the quality of life and actually creating private sector jobs, go right ahead. It is a damaged environment, but I don’t see permanent economic change in government created, short term jobs of any kind.

Now, the development of coal, clean or otherwise, is an issue that needs attention. I’m not educated enough to have an opinion, but the development of an environmentally stable coal industry is important to all of us who live here.

Infrastructure: Again, if you can build roads, bridges and sewers in such a way that local governments will do what they should do to get private sector jobs to locate here as a result, great. But if we’re just talking about what farm gets a new bridge over the creek, it’s relatively pointless. If you can convince a factory to locate here, go for it. But that’s local influence, and that’s where the problems lie. You live in some of these counties long enough, you have to wonder if local leaders really want factories, etc to come here.

Computers: Among other things, sure. That’s assuming our increasingly uneducated work force wants a data entry job. I know those jobs are there because some of my friends have them. But those are people who want a job, aren’t on drugs, don’t have to be in court, will come in every day on time, don’t want to be on welfare and so on. But whoever can get computer jobs in here should do it, just be sure it’s the private sector.

So Washington and Frankfort, here’s my suggestions for what you can do to help Appalachia.

1) Give a real tax break and other financial incentives to any industry hiring 20 people or more who comes to this area and stays for five years.

2) Get out of the education business and get the private business sector into it. Make Appalachia a showplace for school systems run by private, not public, corporations. I’d love to see a school system run by Wal-Mart or UPS. End the competition for the federal money trough. Reward businesses for investing in- even starting and running- school systems.

3) Wipe out all college loans for people who work for five years in Appalachia in a helping profession.

4) Subsidize small business start up loans in Appalachia, and make it a grant if they show a profit and hire 20 people within 5 years.

5) If people want to give money to Appalachia, then give a special tax credit to those who directly contribute to education or new businesses.

6) Tie federal subsidies of infrastructure construction to a mandate for state, county and local governments to remove obstacles to local business start-ups.

7) When a local government is corrupt, seize, arrest, prosecute and sentence local politicians for corruption. If the corruption involves state or federal money, let state and federal charges follow. If an entire local government needs to be taken over by the state, so be it. Send teams of prosecutors with specific mandates to prosecute local corruption and abuse of funds.

8. Give incentives for faith-based cooperatives and networks to start drug rehabs, build houses, provide scholarships, do job training, provide food, etc. Not individual churches, but cooperative networks. (So you will keep your nose out of local church matters.)

9) Give a full state tuition scholarship to every student fulfilling a list of requirements including: 3.5 GPA minimum, community service or employment, clean legal/driving record, graduation from high school. Make the scholarship 4 years contingent on maintaining a similar record in college. Pay all college expenses for students coming back to Appalachia to work in a helping profession.

10) Give medical and drug companies tax incentives to focus on Appalachian problems and to provide medicine and care in Appalachian communities.


  1. If anyone comes up with workable solutions, I will be glad to share them with inner city Cleveland.

    The problems are basically the same; corrupt and untrustworthy government, tribalism, low views of education, and no manufacturing work. I am specific about manufacturing work because that is the ONLY way to get decent paying jobs.

  2. It’s worth noting that the US has one of the highest levels of income equality in developed countries.

    According to Wikipedia, “Between 1979 and 2005, the mean after-tax income for the top 1% increased by 176%, compared to an increase of 69% for the top quintile overall, 20% for the fourth quintile, 21% for the middle quintile, 17% for the second quintile and 6% for the bottom quintile.”


    “Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 20–30 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations. The more detailed the data we can use to observe this change, the more skewed the change appears to be… the majority of large gains are indeed at the top of the distribution.”

    Interestingly, it’s not education that drives this rising inequality, but public policy. Our system is set up to transfer and redistribute wealth from the lower and middle classes to the upper class.

    The rich have never been richer and that wealth has come from the pockets of the working man and woman living from paycheck to paycheck.

    Health care and the current real estate crisis are both good examples. We’ve founded the American way of life on dog-eat-dog capitalism and the idea that if you’re poor, it’s your own fault.

    It is ironic indeed that more secular nations treat the “least of these” far better than this so-called Christian nation.

  3. imonk,
    I will say that you guys have one thing that most do not, and that is Mennonite Dounuts!!!

    Those were the best donuts I have ever tasted. I don’t know if they are still in business, but when I brought my wife back to visit your school in ’07 we stopped there to get some. We ate the whole box in a matter of hours. I am not proud to say it, but it’s true.

  4. Capn Noble
    I think the point about education was. Look at the mess it is now. Government run schools suck. A nuance that imonk could have explored a little more was a heavier emphasis on school choice and vouchers. Competition always works.

  5. You’re describing a terrible situation, but surely it’s one quite beyond the reach of either private or federal jobs, isn’t it?

    Getting rid of welfare makes dropping out of college to live on welfare a lot less attractive.

  6. This thread is titled, “Appalachian Solutions: What the Government Can Do.” If appropriate I would like to ask the question and address the question, “What can the church do?” Also, IMonk (and others), What is you opinion on churches that do short term mission trips to your area, i.e. Building and repair, VBS and backyard Bible clubs, evangelism, benevolence etc.? Do they help or hurt? What about the attitudes of those coming in and ministering for a week or so? What is the responce of the people in the Appalachian area? Jusat curious as to responses and wanting to developmy own mission ideology.

  7. Forgive my spelling errors. Blessings

  8. I’m east Tennessean; it’s pretty similar in my home county.

    To me, it’s a vicious circle; the economic mess reinforces the tribalism, and the tribalism continues to make the economy unworkable.

    I’m of the opinion that what is needed is better tribes. The Mennonites have done quite well in Kentucky–but we too are fundamentally a tribal society.

  9. I’m from West Virginia. I was raised in Charleston. My father worked in the chemical industry, and we lived a typical middle class lifestyle. I look at these issues not as someone who has experienced poverty, but who has seen a lot of it.

    I concur that the relationship between the coal companies and the people is complex. I’ve lived all over the country (after WV, Idaho, Virginia, Dallas, Florida, Pennsylvania) and very few people have an emotional connection to the land as do mountain people. We love the mountains, but we need the coal. We need the money, but we hate the health risks. We love the land, but the one of the largest land owners in the state is Consol Energy. Take a drive down I-79 and you’ll see a barn with words, “Consol Energy, legalized thieves!” painted on it. Love and hate.

    The spiritual issues are also significant. There is still great suspicion of anything that seems to be “foreign”. The history of WV people has been one of exploitation, and so anything that isn’t familiar must be dangerous. This is true in areas of church life and theology. Most “new” ideas are always “too” something. Too RC, too Presby, too northern, too wealthy, blah, blah blah. Like lobsters in a bucket, ain’t noboby getting out because someone else is going to put you in your place. As a minister, I would love to go home again, but I know that if I’m in the wrong situation, I wouldn’t last 6 months before they wanted to run me out. I guess that’s my love/hate.

  10. I live in the rural midwest, and it’s the same here. The unemployment rate in my county is 10% and rising, with many working half-time just to keep their insurance. There are empty storefronts everywhere, and lots of Section 8 housing. One elementary school teacher commented to me that she had only two kids in her class living with both parents, and that at the end of the year, she had the same number of students as at the beginning, but about 40% of them were different students than at the start. We have kids from the high school every year head off to college on athletic scholarships, but many return within a year. They are overwhelmed, under prepared, and often go with no concept of where they rank with the rest of the competition (“I’m the best at my high school, so I must really be THE BEST!”) We don’t seem to have terribly corrupt government officials, but they don’t seem to grasp the enormity of the problem, so they carry on as they did 30 years ago. I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s sad to watch the area go even further downhill…

  11. Bob Sacamento says

    Speaking as a former hill billy, and still one through and through at heart, thanks.

  12. On Short Term Missions Trips:

    We have hundreds and hundreds of short term missions volunteers work at our school. Many others come to help other ministries and local churches.

    It makes a big difference to those churches and ministries.

    If someone hears the Gospel, it changes their life, obviously.

    But if a church wants to change Appalachian culture, short term mission trips are inefficient.

    Use them to listen and learn. Ask ministries and churches what they need.

    For example, our ministry has needs that no church will ever anticipate on their own. Ask us, and we can plug you in.

    Breaking a cycle of poverty from outside? I don’t see much of a way to do that. Build a house, provide a scholarship. That’s helpful.

    But what we need are good people to come and live here, planting new churches and making this culture your home.

  13. “ethnography” – sorry, it was late.

  14. you say you want a revolution?

  15. Ky boy but not now says

    A bit more on the issue of the “tribe”.

    I grew up in the mid-west and have visited and know folks from other parts of the country. The tribal feelings are strong in a lot of areas. It seems to me to correlate to isolated ethic groups. Scots-Irish, Hispanic, African-American, whatever. I didn’t go home after college as there was no real work in the area that excited me. One brother the same. My other brother left just to not get stuck in the ruts. Our home had some tribe but not enough to catch most people.

    I’ve lived in Lexington, Pittsburgh, Hartford, and Raleigh. And traveled for business all over.

    Pittsburgh was in many ways an Appalachian culture. Incredibly hilly (small mountains really). 140+ cities in the county. The top of each hill was a boundary and the bottoms split into a new town every few miles. Many of these towns are ethnically based. Croats, Slaves, Greeks, Armenian, etc… I was there from 80 till 87. I had to leave. It was too depressing. The entrenched work force was spending their Sundays in the bar drinking shots and a beer while working at their make work job waiting for the mills to re-open. And totally refusing to deal with the facts such as the mill was being dismantled while they waited. As an outsider I used to explore and was amazed at 5 miles of steel mill shut down and never to open again. Lots of them. And mini Main Street USAs boarded up except for the pawn shop or a vendor or two staying open till they died. And malls from the 50s sitting vacant.

    And now Pittsburgh is hailed as being in a renaissance. But it’s based on younger and many new folks. The Sunday bar crowd, and many of their kids, are not a part of it. I imagine many of the plans to bring Appalachia into the 21st century would have similar results. IF IF IF you could get folks to move there. It’s not like they have airports, world class universities, etc… down the street.

    As to the corruption in Appalachia, it’s not the same as in the mid west or bigger cites. It’s just different.

  16. Tribalism? Interesting that it’s within the culture there. You might come visit New Mexico sometime and see tribalism in the literal sense, along with all the evils that Government can possibly foist onto a culture (cultures?). What you describe about the pressure to fail, basically, is much paralleled here in Navajoland. Culturally, it’s very, very hard to break away from family and succeed in education or business. And if you do, what’s there to come back to?

    Don’t even get me started on corruption in local government… You just gotta live near a rez for a while to get a real education in that.

    The best jobs available are in the coal mines (like where I work) and the power plants, and these don’t usually require much education. Not that there aren’t well-educated Navajos here, but it’s a pretty small proportion of the population. People who get on here and are wise, never leave, so there’s not much turnover.

    So, what can government do? Well, perhaps stop actively opposing the development of new energy initiatives that would create a ton of new jobs. We have a new, clean-coal-technology power plant (and mine )on the table, and Gov. Richardson et al are doing everything they can to fight it. Sure wish they’d actually do their environmental homework, instead of quoting 20-year-old studies and pandering to their base. But I digress.

    In Appalachia, with the coal reserves you still have available, there should be all kinds of opportunities for power generation using up-to-date environmental technology. I can think of only one reason, in today’s electric-poor market, why plants aren’t getting built there: threat of litigation & opposition by activists of a movement that rhymes with “screen”. Too bad.

  17. Ky boy but not now says

    “In Appalachia, with the coal reserves you still have available, there should be all kinds of opportunities for power generation using up-to-date environmental technology. I can think of only one reason, in today’s electric-poor market, why plants aren’t getting built there: threat of litigation & opposition by activists of a movement that rhymes with “screen”. Too bad.”

    The climate and geography here makes a difference. Really it does.

    But we’re going to have coal for 50 years or more. Or a massive shift to nuclear. Switching out light bulbs will not change trends. Just adjust them a little bit. And a lot of folks refuse to admit that. And where do folks advocating electric cars think all that power will come from? That’s NEW power, not reusing “old” power.

    Oh, well.

  18. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I can think of only one reason, in today’s electric-poor market, why plants aren’t getting built there: threat of litigation & opposition by activists of a movement that rhymes with “screen”. Too bad.” — JimBob

    But it’s doublepluswarmfeelies for all the Greenie Celebrities and Concerned/Compassionate Activists before their next $10 latte at Starbucks, and that’s what’s important. Mother Gaia must be pleased by such devotion, and as for the people who need the electricity and jobs, well, The Planet is overpopulated anyway…

    (I’m from California. I work in a Yuppieville. This isn’t much of an exaggeration. You’d be amazed how much yuppies embrace such fashionable causes. I really think they ought to try Objectivism instead.)

    And where do folks advocating electric cars think all that power will come from? — Ky boy but not now

    Mother Gaia will send Her Faithful prancing unicorns farting rainbows of power, of course.

    Like that Animal Rights activist I heard of who kept chowing down on burgers. When asked where the meat for the burgers came from, he answered “The Supermarket”.

  19. Patrick Lynch says

    “Like that Animal Rights activist I heard of who kept chowing down on burgers. When asked where the meat for the burgers came from, he answered “The Supermarket”.”

    That’s awesome.

  20. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective on things in your neck of the woods, Michael.

    Some people have touched on it in the comments, but while I have strong opinions about what it is right for the goevernment to do, I think that the mindset is an obstacle, that if not overcome, will make any opportunities worthless.

    I’ve seen a bit of the mentality in other parts of the country and it is the idea that success is a sort of betrayal and/or insult to the people of your community. It is like saying that they are not good enough by trying to be better. Other’s success becomes like a mirror people don’t want to look into.

    Having your whole “tribe” fail is a validation of your own position while doing better brings into question things like choices and effort.

    It is troubling that our society as a whole cannot make healthy distinctions between failure and special talents. People should be encouraged to be comfortable with differing degrees of talent, intellegence, ect., but not be ok with self sabatoge.

    The way it seems we are dealing with it at large is to give evryone a blue ribbon no matter how they perform. Soon we’ll give them to people that don’t even participate.

  21. iMonk and Mike,

    I’m not going to stand up and say that our current system of public schools is as good as it could be, but I’m curious as to your take on alternative models.

    iMonk, you talk about schools as a “serious business,” but what exactly do you mean here? Do you think schools should be for-profit endeavors?

    Mike, do you think the solution is as easy as choice and vouchers? How should schools be measured against each other? What about schools that lower standards so everyone looks better?

    I’m not wanting to push buttons. This is just a topic I enjoy discussing and trying to learn more about so I love asking questions and prodding things along. 🙂

  22. Ky boy but not now says

    “Mike, do you think the solution is as easy as choice and vouchers? How should schools be measured against each other? What about schools that lower standards so everyone looks better?”

    I’m not Mike but you don’t need to measure much. The word gets around. I don’t advocate much except for vouchers and charters. And if you want to limit the amounts to expenses and not capital well so be it. It works well for charters here.

    Our charters are formed by groups who want to start a school. There’s a state wide cap on the total so just now you have to wait for one to disband before another can start. You fill out a plan including goals and if approved you’re on the way. Part of the plan is how you plan to raise money for buildings and equipment. Expenses are paid by the state & county at the same rate as the public schools. Lines to get in are long. And it’s a lottery.

    But there are some great teachers in the public schools here also. But it seems 1/3 to 1/2 or more is dead wood. Serving their time until they retire. How do you propose to fix this attitude unless they might loose their job if not enough students show up?

  23. Ky Boy,

    I read newspapers from various areas, and at least one blog by a teacher. The biggest complaints about “No Child Left Behind” and some teacher accountability issues are the parents and the student’s environment are not taken into consideration. The impression that I get is that good teachers may NOT be able to overcome the other issues.

    I don’t doubt that there is dead wood, but I wonder if some of that is due to burn out, and lack of support by management.

  24. Ky boy but not now says

    “I don’t doubt that there is dead wood, but I wonder if some of that is due to burn out, and lack of support by management.”

    Yes. There’s dead wood. Burn out. Bad management. (We’ve dealt with several principals who are more concerned with paperwork than kids), and everything in between. My point is that the system of no competition allows it to proceed. And the entire union and system bureaucracy keeps the dead wood from being removed and the bureaucracy from being fixed. There’s no incentive. There’s a lot of yelling but at the end of the day everyone still has their job unless they royally mess up.

  25. I believe the problem of any sort of alleged competition in public education is that the judges are the wrong people: elected officials, rather than the parents and students themselve or the employers who may ultimately hire them or not.

    Who honestly cares what a congressman who likely went to private schools and who sends his own kids to one thinks about public schools. He has no vested interest other than votes in the next election.

  26. I work at a private school in Clay Co Ky where any local student can attend free. That’s a pretty good voucher.

    Around here, the majority of people sending their kids to a PS could care less about the quality of education. What’s important is the tribal loyalty to the sports program.

  27. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Around here, the majority of people sending their kids to a PS couldn’t care less about the quality of education. What’s important is the tribal loyalty to the sports program. — IMonk

    It’s not just Clay County, KY, IMonk. Around 1970, I spent four years in high school hell on the east side of Los Angeles County, CA, where the only reason for the school was Football, Football, Football. Football jocks and cheerleaders were The Master Race, and guys like me were the Untermenschen.

  28. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    JimBob, Ky Boy:

    Check out the Oh-so-Green couple in this example from Christian Monist. I’m sure Mother Gaia will Rapture them when She finally expunges the cancer of humanity infesting Her…

  29. Yes, there are folks in EKY who do not want “outsiders” but that is normal for many portions of the country, any serious look at any large city will make it clear that people group themselves into “tribes”. Why else would there be a Little Italy or Chinatown in just about every large city. Why else do most churches, no matter the size have a majority of one particular ethnic group. Speaking of churches, what can churches do? They can preach the gospel and follow those practices established in the NT regarding polity and care for the imprisoned, widowed, orphaned and genuinely needy as described in the NT, nothing more.
    Regarding government, the best it can do is establish programs that get the government out of the way of individuals and small businesses trying to make life better for themselves. In EKY, coal is everywhere, power plants and mines should be encouraged and monitored appropriately with the endstate being a safe, clean working environment so that more high school grads can earn $60K a year. Those who whine about the evil coal industry are not interested in progress or in the overall status of the environment, they are simply anti-industrial. Just look at what they drive, drink, and the resources they consume to get their psuedo-green message out. You go to any “green” rally in the world and you will see garbage on the ground to rival any EKY creek.

    Getting back to “tribes” and their dislike for outsiders. Yes, it would take time to build a tourism friendly population, but a local government system with the proper ethics would be able to accomplish that. Hence the only increase in government jobs should be in the state and federal attorney’s general offices. Oh, and park rangers.

    I deeply dislike the “use to be from there and won’t go back, thus it is a horrible place” type of posts. I have traveled all over America and worked with Soldiers from all over America and people like that are from every state, city and ethic background.

    KY is a beautiful state and quite diverse. The two political parties are forced to work together, neither one has a lock on the state, just look at the results for Federal and statewide offices. We do not have the problems of “progressive” CA or FL. We have an incredibly low standard of living and I mean that in a good way. A young man earning $15 an hour can live just fine in most of our counties and not worry about gangs, rampant drugs or the sex industry trying to get a grip on his kids. One can drive to most of the country in a day and enjoy all types of cultural activities within a 2 hour drive of home. There is a plethora of colleges and trade schools. Several of our counties have been recognized in national publications as being the best places to live.

    I am an 8th generation Kentuckian and hope that my descendants will call this place home and work to make it a more Godly, ever safer, ever cleaner, better educated place to raise a family.

  30. All of this really grieves me. I am an East Kentucky native, daughter of a coal miner who grew up in a holler during hard times in a faithful Baptist family of seven. This beautiful place gets in your blood or maybe it’s just genetically in there after so many ancestors have worked and died in it. In spite of the hard times we grew up without resorting to moonshine, marijuana, tobacco, or welfare. There were still proud and independent people there when I left. By the way, we now live within two hours of home–close enough to stay connected without suffering from its failing economy. I don’t know who said it but they were right that we don’t want factories and tourists swarming all over the land. We have been to Dollywood. Would any of you want to live anywhere near there and fight the traffic everyday? To be gawked at and made fun of, taken advantage of? That would be the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil for a little extra cash. Outsiders who have come in here in the past have come to exploit, to take the land and leave us with nothing, the same thing that was done to the Indians. Look at Daniel Boone’s example. After he opened up the Cumberland Trace and lead people here to share the fertile land and good hunting, in just a few years it was overrun with people who contested his claims and drove him out. He wound up moving to Missouri to try to pay his debts after he had done so much work here.

    I have no idea how the young people there today feel. The ones whose parents were on welfare and grew up watching them work the system may be all for a factory or anything to get them out of their cycle. I don’t doubt there comes a point when you can no longer help yourself and have to have someone reach out to you. I want to help them myself but it really has to be done in a way that will leave them with some self respect and a sense of participating in their recovery. To just hand them federal money will start the cycle all over again. Some will have more children just for the tax breaks. Make sure that the reward comes after work has been done. The people I grew up with were great people for the most part. Their hearts are in the right place.

    We have relatives who moved away to northern factories back in the 60’s and though they made enough money to live the average American dream they were not happy.

  31. One more word, I think three big things have combined to bring all of us to this point. Walmarts, NAFTA, and computers. Three big things powered by greed. We had to have the lowest price instead of good quality made by or grown by your neighbors and friends. We rode the wave for awhile and now we have swooped down into the sand.

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