Hollowed Out

Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia

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On a recent balmy morning, I left my house for a walk. I live in a small town in far eastern Kentucky with a walking path running through it that used to be a railroad. The path is now paved, with large wood-and-iron structures alongside it, and next to these structures are illustrations that show you how to use them to work out your arms, legs, and abs. Our town council received a grant to build these structures, and nobody ever uses them, but they sounded good on paper, so up they went. After all, our congressional district has been ranked 435th (dead last) in terms of health and well-being, so we’re regularly encouraged to work out and eat right by our overlords in the local governments, nonprofits, and chambers of commerce.

I took a slight detour off the path to stroll through downtown. Because my small Appalachian county has roughly half the people it did in 1950, and because coal mining now only employs about a hundred and forty people in the county on any given day, downtown Whitesburg is not as thriving as it once was. That’s not to say it’s deserted—many of the buildings are still occupied by businesses and apartments—but there is at least one building that could be classified as condemned. It’s a four-story structure known as the Daniel Boone Hotel, and for as long as I can remember people have been talking about raising it from the dead.

Over the years, this effort has become a bit of a sick joke: it’s attracted more and more grant funding, while the building itself has sunk deeper into a state of disrepair. In 2017 the town council got half a million dollars from the Appalachian Regional Commission to fix it up, and one year later the roof caved in. It now looks like something you’d see in Dresden, 1945.

That hasn’t stopped regional technocrats from using it as an example of what “downtown revitalization” could look like, if done properly. This is because the push to develop sites like the Daniel Boone Hotel is largely an effort in narrative-building, bolstered by grants and strategic media coverage. If you can sell the resurrection of the Daniel Boone Hotel to people who want a brighter future for their deindustrializing region, you can get more grants for that effort, which gets you more press, which gets you more grants. It’s a feedback loop in which you never really have to do anything. A local write-up of that half-million-dollar grant reported that stabilization of the hotel would begin by summer 2017. All that’s happened since is the caved-in roof.

Staring up at the building’s crumbling edifice, I wondered what kind of fantastical grant narrative had justified those half-million dollars. After all, I used to write grants for a living, and I’ve developed a bit of an eye for the tricks of the trade. I found this on the ARC’s website:

The hotel is a central component of Whitesburg’s economic development future and revitalization plans. After the structure is stabilized and renovated, it will be a regional destination and economic driver. The project will create 23 jobs, leverage $2,000,000 in private investment, and will attract 9,900 additional visitors annually to the area. [Emphasis mine.]

These metrics are how you determine the ambition of the project: 9,900 additional visitors annually to the area. How’d they get that number? Well, they either made it up, or some consulting firm gave it to them, and they probably made it up.

Soft POWER

This particular grant had come from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER Initiative, or the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization. POWER was the Obama administration’s attempt to offset the loss of coal jobs caused by mechanization, natural gas prices, and environmental regulations. It was also subtly intended to undercut the coal lobby campaign alleging that Obama was waging a “war on coal.” After he was tarred as a socialist and a foreigner throughout his first campaign, the coal lobby saw in Obama an opportunity to unite coal bosses and coal workers against environmentalists and environmental regulators—especially when it became clear he’d be a tougher foe than the preceding Bush administration, which had significantly relaxed rules on mountaintop removal mining and even tried to cover up the investigation of a 306-million-gallon coal slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky. POWER, then, was never intended to be a War on Poverty–type program, nor was it another New Deal. Instead, it was a strategic compromise that prioritized entrepreneurship, small business development, and job training; most of the money has gone to nonprofits, “business incubators,” or community colleges.

If you can sell the resurrection of the Daniel Boone Hotel, you can get more grants for that effort, which gets you more press, which gets you more grants.

We are now four years and $153 million into the POWER program, and there have been few signs of success. In fact, the Daniel Boone Hotel is far from the worst offender: some of the grant recipients have been revealed as borderline scams. In the summer of 2017, it was reported that a federal job training program in eastern Kentucky known as TechHIRE, which received $2.75 million from POWER, had directed only seventeen people to new jobs, having promised to train about two hundred. In Facebook forums, some re-trainers acknowledge that students may need to leave the region to do anything with the skills they’ve learned at other POWER-funded workforce-training programs, whose own grant narratives tout a future in which the region has a “vibrant and lasting digital economy.”

Perhaps most notoriously, in May of this year the New York Times reported on a tech job training company in West Virginia, Mined Minds, that bilked working-class students with promises of coding expertise and job placement, only to leave them high and dry while the company’s wealthy founders traveled the world and lived lavishly. The company was the main beneficiary of nearly $1.5 million from ARC’s POWER Initiative. “They’re coming here promising stuff that they don’t deliver,” said Roger Frame, whose daughter and wife had enrolled in the program. “People do that all the time. They’ve always done it to Appalachians.”

What went wrong? How did so much money get squandered on so many bad ideas? One answer is a lack of oversight and accountability. Very little has been written about the POWER Initiative, its intentions, its limitations, and its results. Another has to do with the expectations of the grantees and their prejudiced views of Appalachian people; one of the founders of Mined Minds, Amanda Laucher, blamed her company’s failure on the region’s “poverty culture” and the opioid epidemic. But perhaps the most significant reason is the philosophy at the heart of the Appalachian Regional Commission itself, which has not changed much since the agency’s founding.

The ARC of History, Bent

It’s a long and sordid tale, but the condensed story of the War on Poverty in Appalachia goes something like this: West Virginians helped elect John F. Kennedy to the White House, and he wanted to return the favor. At the time, Appalachia’s staggering poverty was being “rediscovered” by mainstream America—it happens every few decades in this country—but this time there was political will to do something about it. So Kennedy launched two initiatives that, with the help of regional business interests, aimed mostly at developing the mountains for tourism: the Area Redevelopment Administration and the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission. When Kennedy was killed in 1963, Lyndon Johnson had to pick up the pieces of these programs, and what resulted were two agencies whose foundational philosophies were immediately at loggerheads: the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).

The OEO was never designed specifically for Appalachia, though one Johnson administration official later commented that it was expedient to “color [the War on Poverty] Appalachian, if you are going to color it anything at all.” The Office’s mission was more or less political. Its Community Action Program (CAP) was designed to meet communities and people where they were at “in the holler,” and organize them to challenge their circumstances. Without intending to, this strategy ripped the lid off a lot of dissent that had been fulminating throughout the region for years, resulting in protests against strip mining and political corruption; predictably, President Richard Nixon largely dismantled the OEO in the early 1970s. The agency’s short history was strange and limited by political circumstance, but it had, at least, a vision that made sense: communities need political enfranchisement to be able to control and allocate their own resources, especially in a historically extracted region like Appalachia.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, on the other hand, was politically safe because its mission was technocratic. Created by Congress in 1965, the agency operated initially on something called “growth center theory.” It called for building up the resources and infrastructure of the more populated cities in and around Appalachia so that the wealth of those places would trickle down to the surrounding countryside. By the end of the 1960s, however, this strategy didn’t appear to be working, so the ARC began calling for depopulation instead. According to Ralph Widner, ARC executive director from 1965-1971, all Appalachia needed was a “residual maintenance population.” The region’s tiny towns were not going to thrive, in his view, and the residents would need to move to growth centers. Appalachia’s many highways, built with ARC money, are testaments to this logic: get the people to move.

The ARC also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education. This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups. “Vocational education is more politically neutral,” one White House aide put it. But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power—the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient. An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk the ARC could not afford to take.

Depopulation, vocational training, growth centers: these kinds of schemes might have made sense to a handful of glassy-eyed bureaucrats, but as you can imagine, they didn’t go over well with the people who still lived in dying hollers and towns. In 1974, Whitesburg’s Mountain Eagle newspaper spoke with a former coal miner in Hazard, Kentucky, “wheezing with black lung but denied disability compensation,” who explained that a local ARC bureaucrat had suggested he retrain as an elevator operator. The miner was confused about how this would work: Hazard had only one building with an elevator, “but the damn thing is push button.” The anecdote was a perfect illustration of how disconnected the commission was from the region they were supposed to be helping.

This disconnection accounts for the ARC’s enduring faith in technology. In Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, historian Ron Eller calls the ARC a domestic version of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, both “an expression of American political culture in the postwar years and a sign of the popular confidence in the ability of science and technology to produce the good life.” This meant that more efficient, rational solutions for the region’s ills were overlooked in favor of technologically sophisticated solutions—and it didn’t hurt that these solutions often landed private corporations a profit.

Perhaps the most amusing example of the ARC’s technology fetish was the Appalachian Education Satellite Program. On May 30, 1974, NASA blasted into geostationary orbit what was at that time the most powerful and versatile “civilian” communications satellite, the ATS-6, built for $235 million by Fairchild Industries. The satellite, an early experiment in direct TV, would beam one hundred hours of reading and career education instruction to teachers and students in remote areas such as in Alaska and across the Appalachian region. The objective, according to a project promoter, Hal Morse, was to “help crack the cultural isolation of Appalachia,” and reach the region’s archetypal “poverty stricken loner” who needed just a little more vocational training to achieve the American dream.

Critics pointed out at the time that what the project set out to do could almost certainly have been achieved with cable television or cassette tapes “for under $10,000,” with the millions that went to Fairchild Industries better spent altogether. As David E. Whisnant explains in his book Modernizing the Mountaineer,

Consultation with local people in Appalachia’s tax-starved school districts would almost certainly have placed higher priorities on raising teachers’ salaries, buying school books and clothing for children who needed them, upgrading the region’s universities, or even establishing a regionwide cable television system.

These needs were bypassed so that electronics and communications companies like Fairchild Industries could get massive handouts from the federal government. Indeed, Fairchild’s commercial satellite operations, of which the ATS-6 stood at the forefront, caused the company’s earnings to quadruple in the second quarter of 1974.

What is so astounding about these stories is how little has changed in more than half a century. One can draw a direct line from the coal miner encouraged to retrain for a job that didn’t exist, to the top-heavy, useless satellite program, to the Mined Minds tech program seen in the New York Times. And although the ARC has faced periodic threats from reactionaries and deficit hawks in Congress, its central governing purpose has remained the same throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s: the individual must be shaped to fit society, rather than society changed to fit the individual. That idea has found new life in the POWER Initiative.

Granted and Disenchanted

Between 2012 and 2015, coal mining employment in Appalachia—long on the decline—substantially collapsed. Eastern Kentucky alone lost some eight thousand coal jobs in just three years. The region saw a wave of outmigration, and without actual miners to support, the GOP’s war-against-the-war-on-coal campaign began to lose relevance. This presented a problem for pro-coal politicians like eastern Kentucky’s powerful Republican congressman, Hal Rogers, who had for years used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding. Seeing the writing on the wall, Rogers began to pivot to economic development initiatives that would diversify the region’s mono-economy. The White House’s POWER Initiative fit the bill.

Students may need to leave the region to do anything with the skills they’ve learned at workforce-training programs, which tout a future based on a “vibrant and lasting digital economy.”

In a move that was heralded as an “exemplary act of bipartisanship,” Rogers stepped forward in 2015 to support the POWER Initiative and even introduced a more robust version of it in the House known as the RECLAIM Act. The Act has since bounced around Congress with little attention or success, but Rogers has nonetheless used it to fundraise and shore up his support among the region’s progressive-adjacent nonprofits. Rogers certainly isn’t stupid. He knows that the economy and demographics of his district are changing. There is a new professional and managerial class in the region’s academic institutions, health care corporations, and nonprofits; some political terrain must be strategically ceded to keep men like Rogers in power.

The ascendance of this class can be observed in the list of POWER grant recipients. Approximately 30 percent of the 184 projects the initiative has funded over the last four years mention or prioritize entrepreneurship in descriptions provided by the ARC. References to concepts like “social enterprise,” “business incubation,” “workforce training,” and “technology hub” are ubiquitous. Everything is “targeted” and “deployed.” “Entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems” must be “fostered” and “strengthened.” The phrases make Appalachian economic development sound like an attempt to terraform Mars: a little angel investing here, a little seed capital there, and it’ll all add up to one gloriously thriving and diversified region.

Still, I wanted to get a clearer sense of the people and ideologies behind these projects, so I selected fifteen organizations that had received POWER funding no later than 2017 and began reaching out to them. Among the organizations was a network of Innovation Gateways in southeastern Ohio designed to provide resources and expertise to entrepreneurs; a correctional facility workforce development pilot program administered by an advanced manufacturing training facility in eastern Kentucky; an “economic gardening initiative” in southwest Pennsylvania; a farm-to-table “sustainable infrastructure for local and regional food systems” in North Carolina; and a program in southwest Virginia to retrain “energy displaced individuals” in construction and health technology.

Wading into the bureaucratic refuse of these organizations was exhausting. Many of them bounced me around to various employees, each cc’d colleague “more qualified to speak on that” than the last. Some of them didn’t respond at all, even after follow-up inquiries. And of the fifteen, only one responded in earnest, a startup “ecosystem” in southwest Pennsylvania that provides business coaches and “maker spaces” for entrepreneurs. The woman I spoke with kept insisting to me that her organization was “an ecosystem, not just a movement or a program for free.” When I asked her about statistics that could point to the ecosystem’s benefits on the region’s economy, she deflected, but said that their program had “three hundred entrepreneurs in the system, being helped at various stages.”

Something she did mention was southwest Pennsylvania’s potential to become the next Silicon Valley. This caught my attention, as I’ve heard the same thing said about eastern Kentucky for years now, albeit by a different name: “Silicon Holler.” This was the underlying premise of the Mined Minds program that failed so spectacularly in West Virginia. And in fact, several POWER grants promise a forthcoming tech utopia, just on the horizon. One grantee organization in southwest Virginia, for example, has the objective of turning that corner of the state into a “regional hub” for the cybersecurity industry. How Silicon Holler will be achieved in a region that lags far behind the rest of the nation in broadband infrastructure remains to be seen.

But POWER doesn’t much concern itself with infrastructure. There have been only seven grants awarded for actual broadband infrastructure out of the total 184—many of which were for projects that require broadband in order to be successful. But these seven are easily outnumbered by projects that promise mere broadband feasibility studies. One project in West Virginia received $100,000 for “an online hub hosting information concerning prospective broadband deployment in West Virginia.” There’s a cruel irony to using a slower internet connection to access a website about the potential for a faster internet connection. Suffice it to say that the government would rather pour money into feasibility studies than simply build the goddamn fiber optic lines.

In terms of other material needs, like water and sewer lines, health care, and education, the numbers are equally grim. There have been only two grants for water infrastructure, but one of them was for servicing a wildlife viewing facility outside Corbin, Kentucky, which hardly counts. A $2 million grant for an education project in Charleston piqued my interest—until I saw that it intends to “educate the next generation of Appalachia’s workforce to create their own businesses to drive the local economy.” The grants related to health care have been almost exclusively devoted to tackling the opioid crisis, but with pledges to create an “opioid workforce” that is “employment ready,” it’s clear that these efforts are mostly driven by a desire to turn addicts back into productive workers rather than alleviate suffering.

Grants for tourism development, which was the ARC’s raison d’etre for many years and also propelled JFK’s Area Redevelopment Administration, sound embarrassingly delusional. A worker for a planning and development council in West Virginia told me that building an extensive POWER-funded bike trail was proving to be “very challenging” because of a lack of “precedent to draw from.” (What kind of precedents does one need to build a simple trail?) That wildlife viewing facility in Kentucky is premised on tourism, but I’m skeptical that anyone would travel halfway across the country to watch an elk walk around on a former strip mine. Most of the remaining tourism grants are for—you guessed it—more feasibility studies. They have missions like identifying “cultural heritage assets” and then “elevating awareness” of those assets—which simply means highlighting them on social media.

Dupes of Hazard

It’s clear how the POWER Initiative benefits Appalachia’s new managerial class, disaster capitalists who are forward-looking only in their desire to exploit resources in Appalachia which don’t yet exist. But it certainly hasn’t benefitted the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who don’t have the capital to start their own entrepreneurial “ecosystems” or run countless feasibility tests with no discernable purpose. I realize I’m missing the point here; the eminently wise technocrats of the ARC would tell me that of course poor and working people aren’t going to start their own businesses. The point is to get middle- and upper-class gentrifiers to start those businesses, and then they’ll employ everyone in a community, and their wealth will trickle down. Even if that were possible in a rapidly depopulating region, many people would remain trapped in violent, backbreaking, dead-end jobs.

There’s a cruel irony to using a slower internet connection to access a website about the potential for a faster internet connection.

But training poor and working people for different jobs is equally unpromising. The majority of the tech skills that that POWER grantees have promised to teach are in some of the most replaceable jobs in the industry: app development, web development, and dataset management. And even if those jobs aren’t easily replaceable by fellow low-paid workers, in a few years they will be, by machines. One POWER project in Pennsylvania got over half a million dollars to train former coal miners to become pipeline workers in oil and gas, an industry that automates and mechanizes at hyperspeed.

Of course people will still be needed to run and monitor the machines, but there isn’t much manufacturing going on in the Appalachian interior, and there never will be, simply because it’s not profitable to put your factory in a remote county in eastern Kentucky, far away from all major ports and transportation corridors. The very people who love capitalism so much that they’d base their entire Appalachian revitalization project on its inerrancy constantly forget its basic premise: things must be profitable in order to matter.

All of this is to say that we can identify several themes in the Obama administration’s grand Appalachian economic development initiative. First: never meet peoples’ material needs directly or encourage them to organize. Rather, study the feasibility of giving them things, or throw some money at a community college, which can train people in the art of being a well-behaved and productive worker, so that they can then get things themselves. Second: if you absolutely must build any infrastructure, make sure that it’s in service to something else, like a wildlife viewing facility or a prison. Third: use as many fancy words as possible to make it sound like you’re keeping busy. Target and deploy your dislocated coal workers to maximize creative potential so that we can create a thriving and diverse restorative economy in the mountains.

And finally, the fourth and most important thing: remember that you don’t actually owe anybody anything, that the government has ceased delivering people even their most basic needs, that it has in fact altogether stopped caring if they live or die. Remember that agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission exist first and foremost to facilitate industry, and that the grant they’ve given you is meant to be deployed for that purpose. Remember that the story you tell is more important than the work you do, which should never amount to more than attending conferences and joining conference calls. And through it all, don’t forget to tell your friends and family that you’re helping the poor people of Appalachia who are too dumb and broke and demoralized and addicted to help themselves.

Right now, the hillbillies are a rich seam of grant money. Capitalists, being opportunists, will always flock when they see one.

Trail to Nowhere

Appalachia provides a useful lens through which to observe the divergent paths of American liberalism in the 1960s. The first path is the one taken by the Appalachian Regional Commission; call it neoliberalism. It is marked by a complete resignation to markets—in fact, an inability to think about or approach social issues outside the logic of markets. Republican attempts to defund or altogether scrap the Appalachian Regional Commission, the most recent of which was thwarted in 2017, should not distract us from the fact that the agency is inherently conservative in the sense that it is invested in maintaining the status quo. The Appalachian Regional Commission exists to remind us that there is no alternative to capitalism.

There isn’t much manufacturing going on in the Appalachian interior, and there never will be—it’s not profitable to put your factory in a remote county in eastern Kentucky, far away from major ports and transportation corridors.

The Office of Economic Opportunity took a second path, which we can label social liberalism. As Alyosha Goldstein writes in his book Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century, “[Social] liberalism shifted emphasis from the classical liberal concern with protecting individuals from the encroachments of government—defending negative liberties—to advocating government as a means of increasing the scope and capacity of individual freedoms—expanding positive liberties.” Social liberals were deeply concerned with the non-elite. They recognized that the fact that the system had not benefited the downtrodden presented a serious threat to both liberalism and America itself: people were more likely to revolt against a system that excluded them.

As Goldstein’s book demonstrates, the War on Poverty in Appalachia and beyond attempted to contain and redirect dissatisfaction with the capitalist system by simultaneously bringing more Americans into market dependence and attempting to change the very character of the American citizen into something more community-oriented. The clever method social liberals devised to accomplish this was the community-based social initiative: forcing the impoverished to work together with other members of their community, including the wealthy, to identify problems, and then organize to change them. Within the Office of Economic Opportunity, this took the form of the Community Action Program, but its dream of cross-class communion backfired spectacularly. It turns out that once you put a bunch of oppressed people in the same room, they’re going to start challenging the circumstances that got them there.

However accidentally inspiring it was, looking to the OEO and its Community Action Program as an alternative to the ARC and its POWER Initiative is a dead end. This is not merely because of CAP’s fundamental limitations, but because with the ascendance of neoliberalism over social liberalism, the time of “wars” on “poverty” is long gone. In rolling out the POWER Initiative, the Obama administration rarely mentioned poverty; the rhetoric was all about the middle class and their well-paying, skilled jobs. The elite no longer have to manage the lower classes through ambitious national political projects; their single-minded obsession with preserving the middle class does that for them, because it provides a bulwark against working-class solidarity.

Those of us who do want a better world often find our efforts stymied by projects claiming to be progressive. The single most important legacy of the War on Poverty is the creation of a massive nonprofit industry in poor, rural areas like Appalachia. As Goldstein writes, “For a select few, antipoverty programs were a means toward political mobility and professional advancement as representatives or intermediaries for the poor. Funding made possible the development of a new class of local political leaders and nonprofessional social workers habituated to the routines of the political process.”

These leaders and nonprofessional social workers have never gone away. They tell us every day that the way to turn around our prospects is to work within the system, to be nice to our politicians and oligarchs so that they’ll give us nice things in return, to work out and eat right so we might deserve those nice things. Meanwhile, infrastructure continues to crumble and working people struggle to put food on the table. But at least, thanks to the POWER initiative, we can work out our abs on the walking trail to liberation.

Tarence Ray is a writer living in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and is cohost of the podcast Trillbilly Worker’s Party

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