Kicking Them While They’re Down: What Trump is Doing to Appalachia

Photo by Don O'Brien | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Don O’Brien | CC BY 2.0


Appalachia voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who won it by a resounding 63%-33%.  Appalachia as a region is defined by federal law, and consists of 490 counties in 13 states.  Hillary Clinton won only 21 of these counties.  According to the right-wing Washington Examiner, “She did not win a single county in Appalachia that is mostly white, non-college-educated and has a population of under 100,000 people”.

Political analysts have used a fine-tooth comb to go over the issue of Trump’s popularity with less-educated whites, so there is no need to repeat their findings here.

More interesting, and not so much discussed thus far, is the potential impact on Appalachia of the budgetary policies announced recently by the Trump administration.  In a nutshell:  what’s been announced may “make America great again”, but it almost certainly won’t do this for Appalachia (not that the rest of the country, except for the plutocracy, is likely to benefit either).

Appalachia is one of the poorest regions in the US.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has been earmarked for elimination by Trump, as has the Economic Development Administration (EDA)– more about this later.  The ARC compiles statistics on Appalachian poverty, income, and employment.

According to the ARC 2010-2014 Poverty Rate report, the poverty rate across the US was 15.6% compared to 19.7% in the Appalachian region of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

There are significant variations between different Appalachian states where poverty rates are concerned.  For example, the Virginian statewide rate is 11.5% as opposed to an 18.8% rate for the Appalachian region overall.

(This statistic is however somewhat misleading when used in this way because Virginia’s overall poverty rate is greatly reduced by the economic contribution of affluent northern Virginia (NoVa) with its abundance of well-paid government and tech jobs.  There are “two Virginias” where income disparities are concerned, and the poverty rate in Appalachian Virginia, as opposed to NoVa, is a more accurate 18.8%.)

The state with the worst regional poverty rate is Kentucky with a 25.4% rate in its Appalachian portion as opposed to the 18.9% rate for the rest of the state.

The cause of this poverty is not so much unemployment (though that is a contributing factor), but desperately low income levels.

In 2014, the US unemployment rate was 6.2% while the Appalachian regions was 6.5%.  Appalachian Kentucky’s rate (8.5%) was only 2% higher.  So, unemployment levels per se do not account for Appalachia’s economic travails.

The comparative figures for per capita income however tell a very different story, namely, that of Appalachian people who are in work, but remain poor.

In 2014, the per capita income of Appalachian Kentucky was $30,308, while the per capita income of the entire US was $46,049. The per capita income for Appalachia as a whole that year was $37,260, that is, 80.9% of US per capita income.

There are undeniable specificities to Appalachian poverty, but the general and longer-term contributing factors are in plain sight.

According to a recent (December 2016) report by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez on US income inequality: (i) the bottom 50% of American income-earners have stood still over the last half-century while nearly all income growth has gone to the 1%;  (ii) US income-distribution patterns are similar to those of “failed states” in the global south; (iii) increased government spending, including income transfers, has benefitted the non-poor rather than the poor.

Trump’s proposed budget is going to hit Appalachia hard.  Take the case of Floyd County in Appalachian Virginia,

According to the Roanoke Times, a 2009 study found that Floyd had the fourth-lowest wages in Virginia for jobs within a county.  This was “because most people in Floyd County didn’t work in the county; 69 percent of the workers in Floyd commuted to jobs outside the county. There simply weren’t enough jobs in the county and the ones that were there didn’t pay very well”.

Floyd County’s biggest employer, the clothing manufacturer Donnkenny, had upped sticks and moved its production overseas in 2000.

As a response to Floyd County’s economic ills, the county administration decided to look to the new economy for a possible solution.

The Floyd Innovation Center, a 9,000 sq ft building, was constructed in 2014.  Intended as a start-up incubator, Floyd so far has 8 new businesses that have emerged from its Innovation Center, one of which has moved on to larger premises elsewhere.

50% of the money to build the $2.3 million Floyd Innovation Center came from the two federal agencies Trump wants to eliminate – the above-mentioned ARC and EDA.  Both organizations provide grants for economic development projects in Appalachia.

The Trump administration says the EDA has “limited measurable impacts and duplicates other federal programs”.  This is simply untrue.  Several successful tech ventures, some involving partnerships with Virginia Tech, have been funded by the EDA.

The Orange Swindler and his handlers cunningly manipulated their base by filtering all the US’s economic problems through the prism of a confected “white identity” (meaning:  those less wealthy and less educated, not living in the larger cities, betrayed by neoliberalism and globalization for decades, thrown crumbs by its political mainstream).

But this prism of white identity is a chimera predicated on a culture of resentment: against immigrants, beneficiaries of affirmative action, the “sinful” gay community, “uppity” women insisting on their reproductive rights, the allegedly indolent poor, “soft” Europeans who sponge of the US for their national security, anyone giving the impression of enjoying themselves too much (though Trump himself is a self-confessed libertine and sexual predator), that is, everyone and everything that can somehow be cast as “different”.

Hence Trump’s propaganda maintained America was no longer “great” because immigrants were taking the jobs of white Americans (though Trump’s hotels and winery employ immigrant workers, and 2 of his 3 wives are immigrants), that trade pacts with other countries have disadvantaged (white) Americans, that greedy corporations were offshoring production to places– Central and South America and East Asia primarily– which then benefitted the “wrong” people (though Trump’s and his daughter Ivanka’s clothing lines are produced in China), and so forth.

Economic and white nationalism suffused each other seamlessly in his campaign, and as long as the latter is accorded primacy, Trump’s base will probably not spot his bag of tricks.

Other Trump budget cuts will affect Appalachia.

Swathes of Appalachia are massively polluted due to the activity of extractive industries, but Trump is making a 30% cut to the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account, which is used to clean up contamination.  Decontamination projects at the state level will be cut by more than 40%.  Pollution enforcement will be cut by a third.

As a sop to the coal industry, the Department of Energy will be cut by 17.9%, hampering research and development into solar and emissions-cutting technology. Also likely to be cut are the Sunshot Initiative, which provides solar-power companies with tools to save money. The Office of Fossil Energy, which helps utilities build technology to reduce their carbon emissions, might also be axed.

The Orange Swindler also intends to repeal the Clean Power Plan, designed to cut emissions from power plants.  In placating the coal barons by rescinding greenhouses gas regulations, Trump is giving the impression of resuscitating an industry which, alas, is in terminal decline.

The coal industry has shed nearly 60,000 non-office jobs, or 40% of its coalface jobs, since 2011.  2016 was the worst year for coal production since 1978.  Signing executive orders with a melodramatic flourish and sending-out misspelled tweets are not going to change the market conditions underlying this decline.

In fact, Trump’s efforts to hamstring non-carbon energy are likely to have a boomerang effect.

According to the Roanoke Times, Wise County in Appalachian Virginia is trying to counter the decline in coal production by marketing itself as a location for data centres.  Data centres consume large amounts of energy, and thus prefer solar energy, where costs are going down rapidly.

A solar company is prepared to open in Wise County, but the Kentucky-based utility, using coal mainly, that serves the county is opposed to the idea.  This utility will be emboldened by Trump’s energy policy, so in effect an out-of-state utility is putting the brakes on the economic development of a rural Virginian county facing hard times.

States voting Republican are bigger recipients of federal funding than those which vote Democratic, and Trump is of course taking the axe to federal funding.

Trump’s budget will eliminate Talent Search, a programme provided under the auspices of the decades-old federal programme TRiO, which helps first-generation, low-income students get into college by providing the guidance and support they may not be receiving at home.

Trump wants to cut TRiO and another initiative named GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programmes) by $193m, repeating the canard that they have “limited measurable impacts and duplicate other federal programs”, a claim rejected by university administrations.

Many students in Appalachia are trying to rise above poverty by going to college– the Orange Swindler’s cuts to college-preparation programmes for first-generation students will make it even harder for them to realize this aspiration.

Trump also wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which subsidizes after-school theatre, dance and music classes for students, many of whom come from low-income families in the poorest parts of Appalachia.

A faltering economy invariably exacerbates social problems, and Appalachia is no exception.  Opiate addiction has reached epidemic levels.  Domestic violence is a concomitant of this situation, but Trump is slashing federal funds for organizations aiding the victims of domestic violence to help pay for his fatuous border wall.

Also being slashed are funds for retraining the unemployed, and the Labor Department’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which pairs low-income individuals over the age of 55 with government-subsidized jobs at nonprofits and public agencies. The Trump administration maintains the $434m program has failed to move enough of these older workers into unsubsidized jobs.  It is a lifeline in impoverished regions where many seniors, after a lifetime in poorly-paid jobs, don’t have pensions ample enough to afford a secure retirement.

Alas, none of the above provides any hope for those who abhor the Orange Swindler and his policies.  A Washington Post poll last month showed that only 3% of Trump voters regret voting for him.

These Trump supporters view him, insistently, through the lens of white nationalism, and as long as this is intact, they are prepared to vote against their economic interests.  Even when it reduces their time on earth.

Nearly everywhere in the world, a tiny number of “failed states” apart, life expectancy is rising.  However, among white Americans without college educations, the core of Trump’s base in Appalachia, life spans are now declining.  The Guardian refers to a recent Lancet article on this issue:

Among the studies’ key findings: the richest 1% live up to 15 years longer than the poorest 1%; the same gap in life expectancy widened in recent decades, making poverty a powerful indicator for death; more than one-third of low-income Americans avoid medical care because of costs (compared to 7% in Canada and 1% in the UK); the poorest fifth of Americans pay twice as much for healthcare as a share of income (6% for the poor, versus 3.2% for the rich); and life expectancy would have grown 51.1% more from 1983 to 2005 had mass incarceration not accelerated in the mid-1980s.

A situation in which voters are prepared effectively to trade months and years of their life for a candidate’s electoral success will be not be easy to remedy.

Not even the recently deceased billionaire David Rockefeller, a Republican of course, who lived to be 101 after 7 heart transplants, was prepared to give up a smidgen of his life for any cause (he received his 7th transplant in the last year of his life).

Trump’s base needs, desperately, to learn from Rockefeller’s obdurate example by not relinquishing an iota of their own life spans.

No administration has been able to overcome the underlying chronic stasis afflicting the US’s system of accumulation since the late 1970s, which has provided consistent economic gains only for the top 5% (i.e. those with an annual household income of $201,000-plus in 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal) and not those below.

Since the late 1970s those below the top 5% have had to contend with faltering economic growth, decades of wage stagnation, widening inequality, rising household debt, and widespread deindustrialization in formerly prosperous areas.

No American politician, not even Bernie Sanders, the supposed socialist, will speak in a plainly adult way to the electorate about this underlying state of affairs.  To do this properly, the supersession of capitalism will have to be at the forefront of his (and our) agenda.

Anyone prepared to bet a micro-second of their life on Trump’s ability to reverse this systemic state of affairs, might as well wager that a penguin will win the pole vault in the next Olympics.

Incidentally, nearly 66% of Floyd County’s voters cast their ballots for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the best result there for a Republican since Reagan in his 49-state landslide in 1984.

The good people of Floyd County who placed their hopes for a better life on Trump, unless they belong to the top 5%, would do no worse wagering on that (of course imaginary) pole-vaulting penguin in the next Olympics—using Trump-speak, going for the “total loser” penguin rather than the Orange Swindler will deliver exactly the same outcome for Americans who aren’t wealthy.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.