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Appalachia Needs Big Government

How Donald Trump betrayed the region—and how Democrats can win it back.

Karen Bleier/Getty Images

Hancock County, Tennessee, lies on the Virginia border, not far from where Daniel Boone crossed into the American West. For decades it was home to small farmers who carved out a living growing burley tobacco. Greg Marion, the former county mayor, remembers locals buying cars from his father’s dealership on credit. They’d pay in full when their tobacco check came in each season. Those farms started disappearing after the surgeon general released his warning against tobacco products in 1964.

Ten years ago, Hancock County still had 500 manufacturing jobs, according to Marion. Now there are fewer than 50. Most of the factories have decamped—the local electric motor plant departed for China. Almost all the coal jobs just across the border in southern Virginia are gone too. “We lost tobacco, we lost manufacturing, we lost coal,” Marion says. “Strike one, strike two, and strike three.” On Election Day, almost 83 percent of Hancock voted for Donald Trump, the highest proportion of any county in Tennessee.

Like much of rural Appalachia, Hancock—one of the poorest counties in the nation, and the second-poorest in Tennessee—relies on federal funding for even the most basic services. Almost a third of the population lives in poverty, and Marion estimates that up to 90 percent receive some form of government assistance, from school lunches to health care. Hancock, he says, owes its sewage system, hospital, even its sidewalk maintenance to a little-known federal agency called the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC.

ARC is on the chopping block in the skinny budget President Trump released on March 16. In the coming months, Congress will haggle over the $120 million ARC has requested from the federal government this fiscal year, money that funds development projects scattered across 420 counties, from Missouri to New York. Trump had campaigned on an upstart populism, promising a government that can “take care of everybody,” but has since embraced a more traditional austerity conservatism. Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, recently bragged, “He probably didn’t know what the Appalachian Regional Commission did. I was able to convince him, ‘Mr. President, this is not an efficient use of the taxpayer dollars.’”

ARC is an example of big government at its best. It is responsive to local needs, and it achieves demonstrable results with a miniscule portion of the federal budget. Its success—and uncertain future—provides an opportunity for Democrats to make inroads in a region that has taken a hard turn toward the Republican Party in the past few decades.

ARC was founded in 1965, after John F. Kennedy barnstormed through West Virginia in 1960, coming face-to-face with abject poverty for the first time. Kennedy saw women standing in line for government surplus food, kids bringing the milk cartons in their school lunches home for their siblings, and homes abandoned when the coal jobs in the state began drying up. During a Democratic debate against Hubert Humphrey, he held up a single can of government surplus food. “This is what people are living on,” he said.

Kennedy promised Appalachia help, and he delivered: In April 1963, only a few months before his death, he established a presidential commission charged with drafting a comprehensive strategy to revive Appalachia. The commission’s report gave rise to ARC. “This legislation marks the end of an era of partisan cynicism towards human want and misery,” Lyndon Johnson said as he signed it into law in 1965.

Donald Trump is not the first Republican president to go after ARC. Ronald Reagan did the same in 1980—and promptly encountered bipartisan resistance. His sweeping budget listed 83 programs that would have to be overhauled to slash over $41 billion in annual government spending, ARC among them. “The president,” The New York Times explained in 1981, “says that the grants have had little influence on local economic development and that the regional commissions duplicate activities of states and localities. The cuts would save more than $5 billion over the next four to five years.”

This is a classic conservative argument. “Conservative Republicans have always felt that regional development agencies are an unnecessary part of the federal bureaucracy that gets in between the states and the federal government,” says Ron Eller, author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. “In many ways, ARC is a unique window into the American political system and the longstanding debate as to whether power should be located in the states or power should be located in the federal government.” 

In June 1981, a Republican senator, Howard Baker of Tennessee, and a Democrat, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, joined forces to delete millions in spending cuts from Reagan’s proposed budget. In doing so, they saved ARC.

Over the next 36 years, ARC would launch programs to retrain unemployed workers and foster small businesses, hand out millions in grants, and bring the internet to small rural communities across Appalachia. By 2001, the commission had supplied water and sewer services to more than 800,000 households, built over 2,000 miles of road, and created hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

ARC also provided initial funding for a passenger rail study in Bristol, a town in southwest Virginia. It hopes to extend Amtrak service to a historic rail station near its main street. As a potential rail hub, Bristol’s location is ideal. It straddles the state line between Virginia and Tennessee, and is in proximity to western North Carolina and eastern Kentucky. An Amtrak station wouldn’t just serve Bristol, then, but the broader coalfields, connecting isolated rural communities to schools, jobs, and health care facilities they otherwise lack.

“About 70 percent of the citizens of the state [of Virginia] have what I would call reasonable access to passenger rail, so that’s having an Amtrak station within a 50- or 75-mile driving distance,” Carl Chidlow, the D.C. representative for the Bristol Industrial Development authority, tells The New Republic. “Having a passenger rail within the city of Bristol would bring in the other 30 percent of the Virginia Commonwealth’s citizens.”

Bristol is a small city, with a population of 17,141 according to the last Census. Over 20 percent of its residents live in poverty. Its lack of resources also illustrates the necessity of ARC. “With ARC being sort of the initial incubator of the idea we were able to line up about $400,000 in support,” Chidlow explains.

ARC also fosters small business development. Tony Bova, a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, went through one of its programs. While working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he discovered a new way to manufacture biodegradable mulch film—the plastic sheeting that farmers use to grow crops. It saves small farmers hundreds of dollars per acre each season. One day, maybe, Bova thought he’d turn it into a fully fledged business. But almost everything he knew about pitching investors, conducting research and development, and laying out a business plan came from blogs and the occasional Shark Tank episode.

Last spring, he enrolled in a small business class called CO.STARTERS at the Entrepreneur Center in downtown Knoxville. Each Monday night, in a bright open space with brick walls and white boards, he and ten or so other students—an aspiring yoga instructor, a landscaper, and one woman who ran a custom embroidery shop from her home—were given a crash course in starting a business. ARC helps subsidize the program. It costs just $250 to enroll, far less than a semester-long business course at the university.

“Without those classes,” Bova says, “I would have just spent a lot more time thinking about maybe starting a business one day. I might never have done it.” Now, Grow Bioplastics has more than $136,000 in grants, and Bova and his business partner, Jeff Beegle, expect to have their products on the market in the next two years.

Melissa Kreis-Stephens has a similar story. A high school science teacher at the York Agricultural Institute, she and her students produced a natural remedy for poison ivy, a version of what later became the first product in her line of plant salves and cosmetics. In 2011, she trademarked her recipe, and four years later incorporated her company, Tomboy Organic Skincare. But living in Deer Lodge, a small town of around 1,400 people deep in rural Tennessee, she had little understanding of how to hire an accountant or purchase insurance, so she enrolled in a CO.STARTERS class. Now, her company is thriving, and she has plans to quit her full-time job.

For rural voters, distrust of the federal government is often rooted in alienation. Declining local economies and a weak social safety net hardly muster faith in Washington, D.C. ARC should be different. It is an example of effective big government, transforming places like Hancock County at low cost. If it is gutted or eliminated altogether, this will have severe consequences for poor communities. Marion says residents of Hancock County would soon see their land and sales taxes inch up to pay for the water and sewer projects that ARC once funded.

West Virginia faces a similar crisis. “We are a client state,” says Stephen Skinner, a lawyer who left the West Virginia House of Delegates last year to run for a state Senate seat in the Eastern Panhandle. “We have a net negative withdraw from the federal government. If they start to even that out, it’ll be felt.”  

That could dent support for Donald Trump in the long run, all across Appalachia. But Democrats still have to do a better job claiming programs like ARC as their own. “If you polled people, very few would probably know ARC even exists,” Skinner says. “That’s part of the challenge. People don’t know or understand it. They may vote against their best interests.”

This is partially due to ARC’s complicated structure. “The way it was set up originally, most of the focus has actually been in the governor’s offices,” Eller explains. “And so it’s been state-level bureaucrats that have really made the decisions as to how money would be spent in the Appalachian portions of each of the states.”

ARC may be fronted by local politicians with strong community ties (this is partly what makes it effective), but it depends on the federal government to accomplish its purpose. And Trump may be more vulnerable in these areas than he seems. Eller says Trump’s future success in the region is not assured. “I think the issue is whether or not people in the region feel that there is hope for the future that they see jobs of the variety coming to their communities, improved health care, educational opportunities,” he says. “And if they see those things cut back, then they will very quickly move to the next politician who they feel represents their interest.”

By attacking ARC, Trump’s proven that he and his handlers intend to govern mostly within established conservative parameters. Democrats should therefore respond with a two-pronged strategy: Defend ARC, and slam Trump’s threats as proof that he is no different from classic Republican budget-cutters. Democrats have to enthusiastically promote social welfare as a tangible, necessary benefit to people’s lives. “If the Democrats don’t learn lessons from this election about what the real issues are and how they really ought to be speaking to people, then we will continue to see people leaving the Democratic Party,” Eller says.

It’s not going to be easy for Democrats to make inroads in states like West Virginia and Tennessee. Appalachia has steadily drifted from the Democrats since the Vietnam War. “By the early 1980s, you could see clear evidence of their growing interest in accumulating wealth for themselves, of their focus on corporate profits that would pay them dividends and increase the value of their stocks,” Charles Peters, The Washington Monthly’s founding editor, wrote of liberals in the Times recently. “Wall Street Week soared to popularity on PBS—it was the Downton Abbey of its time. Profits have increased since 1980, yet wages have stagnated.” In the eyes of Appalachians, Democrats had become associated with elitism, big business, and political correctness, a moneyed class removed from the wants and needs of blue collar workers. 

As Matt Stoller noted at The Atlantic last year, the party gradually and deliberately moved away from its historical support for social welfare programs and toward a friendlier relationship with Wall Street. “The result today is a paradox,” he wrote. “At the same time that the nation has achieved perhaps the most tolerant culture in U.S. history, the destruction of the anti-monopoly and anti-bank tradition in the Democratic Party has also cleared the way for the greatest concentration of economic power in a century.”

Democrats need to reverse this trend if they want a shot at reclaiming Appalachia, which will otherwise present certain cultural obstacles—entrenched racism, religious conservatism, nostalgia for the coal industry—that Democrats will struggle to overcome. The first step is differentiating themselves from Republicans, and making the case for good, big government—programs like ARC that have helped the region for decades, but that Donald Trump is now threatening to axe.

As Jeff Kessler, a former state senator who ran in West Virginia’s gubernatorial Democratic primary last year, recently told the Charleston Gazette Mail, “If you are gonna get your butts beat, why not stand for something?”