Distilling Poverty in Coal Country
In Appalachia, our biggest export is people.
I have heard that all my life. I continue to hear it from small-town politicians concerned about brain drain. I hear it from economic development officials concerned that the steady stream of young folks leaving town makes it difficult to attract new employers. I hear it from heartbroken parents and grandparents who want their children to build lives in the region but understand that there's nothing here that gives their kids any hope for a brighter future.
The result, many argue, is that the best and brightest and socioeconomically mobile leave town while those who are too poor to move simply stay.
Among the most popular myths about Appalachia is that coal has been a blessing and a wealth-builder for the region. The previous eight years brought an overwhelming amount of rhetoric from Republican local, state, and federal officials who represent coal country. Time and again, folks in the coalfields were warned about President Obama's so-called war on coal. The EPA, people were told, was trying to kill Appalachia. Critical analysis of the numbers, however, tells a much different story. Obama didn't kill coal. Technology and market forces did.
Politicians can use statistics the way Jim Bakker uses the Bible: to argue any possible point, no matter how false or ridiculous. It was Mark Twain who popularized the oft-quoted rebuttal to statistics. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, he quipped. While this might be true, numbers are still an invaluable way to analyze and understand both the past an the present. As an historian, I understand the necessity of building a contextual framework around numbers. When left to stand for themselves, statistics are more easily fudged or misinterpreted or downright misrepresented. In coal country, the numbers can only be understood in historical context over a long length of time.
Much of my own research is centered in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. I lived there for seven years before I became an academic, and I learned many important lessons about Appalachia's poverty and economy in my time running a small business there. The coalfields offer an interesting and compelling example of how numbers often disprove political rhetoric.
The current consensus story of the coal economy as told by many eastern Kentucky political figures goes something like this: Coal companies have, for decades, been benevolent saviors of the communities in which they operate. They have provided high-paying jobs and opportunities for people with few other opportunities. Then Obama was elected and declared war on coal, leaving Appalachian communities to suffer and starve. Because of Obama, the story goes, eastern Kentucky damned near died. When Donald Trump began campaigning in the region, he promised a return of King Coal. If he were elected, he promised, tens of thousands of Appalachian coal miners would be put back to work.
While this storyline continues to fill those in coal country with false hope and get politicians elected, it is nonsense. Coal began its tumble well before Obama was elected. Coal employment in eastern Kentucky has been falling since the Reagan administration, even during coal booms where production soared. The numbers prove that this is the case.
In 1980, eastern Kentucky's coalfields produced approximately 109,000,000 short tons of coal with a workforce of 34,500. A decade later, in 1990, the region yielded over 128,000,000 short tons of coal with fewer than 25,000 workers. That's an increase of 17% in production, with a workforce that was almost 28% smaller. Ten years later, in 2000, production had fallen to 105,000,000 short tons, but employment fell below 13,000 workers. By 2010, production was down to 68,000,000 short tons, while employment had risen slightly to nearly 14,000.
Two things stand out here. First, as production rose in the 1980s, employment fell. Second, as production fell in the 2000s, employment remained nearly constant. These numbers debunk the myth that Obama alone was responsible for the decline of coal jobs in Appalachia.
Between 1980 and 2000, coal jobs in eastern Kentucky declined by 62%. By looking at changes over the course of three decades, it is easier to see long-term trends that are not as evident in a year-by-year analysis. Coal employment fell during both Republican and Democratic administrations, and these changes were not tied directly to changes in coal production. Changes in technology, machinery, and technique, more than changes in federal policy, led to the substantial decrease in coal employment and the increase in production. Once mountaintop removal became widespread, coal companies were able to extract more coal and they were able to do it with less labor. The result: fewer miners running coal and exponentially increased profits for the coal operators.
In 1990, the average price of a short ton of coal was $21.76 ($41.64 in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars). That means that, in 2017 dollars, $5,346,409,440 in coal was extracted from eastern Kentucky in 1990. While they extracted billions of dollars worth of coal, coal companies simultaneously figured out how to do it cheaper. In the process, they put thousands of miners out of work. Those looking to assign blame for the decline of coal jobs in eastern Kentucky need to look back a lot farther than Obama. While he and congressional liberals might make convenient scapegoats, they are less to blame than the coal companies looking to make increased profits with fewer employees.
As coal employment fell in eastern Kentucky, so did the population in many of the most productive coal counties. Twelve of the 32 coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky saw a decline in population between 1960 and 2010. Those that lost the most residents were generally those that produced the most coal. Even when production was booming in the 1980s and 1990s, poverty was on the rise. In 1980, a quarter of the population of the eastern Kentucky coalfields lived below the poverty line. By 1990, that figure had risen to thirty percent. That is, even as coal production increased, so did poverty rates. By 2000, the poverty level had declined a bit to 26%, but only because the population had increased slightly across the region, mostly in counties like Laurel, which is located on the interstate and less dependent on coal. In fact, Laurel County alone accounts for over half of the population growth in the region between 1990 and 2000. Counties that relied more heavily on coal did not fare so well.
Of the twelve counties that had a smaller population in 2010 than in 1960, only three of them are no longer major coal producers. Harlan County is a glaring example of a county in crisis. Harlan lost 44% of its population in the half-century between 1960 and 2010. This is despite the fact that coal companies extracted tens of millions of dollars worth of coal from Harlan County in the same span of time. If a booming coal industry drove the eastern Kentucky economy in the way many would have us believe, why was Harlan's population shrinking while its coal industry was booming? The simple answer is that coal operators were employing fewer miners. Those who could afford to do so simply left town to find other opportunities.
A declining population in eastern Kentucky presents a unique problem. When the national economy was booming, as it was in the 1990s, those who were laid off from coal jobs and unable to find other work stood a better chance of finding jobs in other places. However, as the economy began a not-so-subtle meltdown in 2007, it became less likely that those unable to find work in the region had the resources or the opportunity to move. For generations, Americans have "voted with their feet" by moving to other places when they were unable to find work. However, in eastern Kentucky, when fewer and fewer people have the resources to move, only those who are at least somewhat financially stable or upwardly mobile are able to leave. As the population shrinks, those who leave are often the more-mobile middle class. The result is that the shrinking population is increasingly made up of poor people. I call this process the distillation of poverty.
Let's look at a hypothetical example to demonstrate how the math works. A hypothetical county with a population of 10,000 has a poverty rate of 25%. That's 2,500 impoverished people. Let's say the county's population decreases by ten percent, and only those above the poverty line are able to afford the move. That leaves a population of 9,000, but there are still 2,500 impoverished people in the county. The poverty level then rises to 27.7%.
Harlan County offers an example of this process at work. In 1980, the poverty rate in Harlan was 25.8%. By 1990, it increased to 33.1%. During the same time period, the population decreased by over 5,000 people. The result is that in 1990, impoverished people made up a larger percentage of the population. This process plays out in many eastern Kentucky counties in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. When poor people make up an increasing percentage of a given county's population, it becomes an ever greater challenge to offer the services (education and job training, namely) necessary to help these individuals escape from poverty.
In 2010, 26.3% of the population in eastern Kentucky lived below the poverty line. At the same time, only 15% of all Americans were impoverished. When one out of every four people in a given region lives in poverty, it is a challenge for political and business leaders to create and foster opportunity for those who seek it. Impoverished people are less likely to be healthy, and they are afforded fewer educational opportunities. Accordingly, they stand a diminished chance compared to most Americans to climb out of poverty, no matter how hard they work. Employers are put off by counties with high poverty rates for a variety of reasons. Right or wrong, they buy into the idea that high poverty rates mean an unqualified and untrained workforce. This perpetuates many of the inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes about Appalachian people. Without education and job training, and without new employers to replace coal jobs, poverty becomes permanent. Eventually, people assume that those who rely on public assistance to survive are just lazy.
It has at times (including this time) been popular to blame poor people for their circumstances rather than blaming the broken system that prevents them from achieving upward mobility. JD Vance's recent bestseller Hillbilly Elegy treads this insulting path. Vance is heavy on victim blaming, and many reviewers have called him out for it. I see it all the time, particularly on social media. Those who have never experienced soul-crushing poverty themselves insult and belittle those who are forced to survive on public assistance. They label them "white trash" and "hillbillies." They rob them of their humanity. They blame them for being poor as if they somehow had a choice. They preach about accountability and personal responsibility while never holding those who have systemically exploited Appalachia accountable for the plundering they have been doing for generations.
I say often that central Appalachia is poor because of coal rather than in spite of it. After writing this in my last blog post, I got a bit of pushback via social media. A few folks accused me of being anti-coal, and more than one person expressed displeasure at what I said "about coal miners." To be clear, I am quite anti-coal, but I am very pro-coal-miner. I believe coal is the single worst thing to have ever happened to white people in Appalachia. I believe that many coal operators are evil. I believe that any person who runs a company that makes profit from poisoning water and destroying mountains should be ashamed. I believe that coal operators who have hired gun thugs to intimidate and threaten and beat coal miners should be arrested and tried and thrown under the jail.
I also believe that coal miners should be fairly compensated for their work. They take risks that are not usually worth the rewards, and their sacrifices have powered and built America and the world for generations. They should be supported and taken care of when their bodies are broken by their work, especially when their injuries are due to unsafe working conditions. I believe they should be free to unionize and bargain collectively without threats from mine operators. In short, I believe they should be treated like humans rather than like expendable and replaceable pieces of equipment.
As we continue to debate the future of coal in the United States, we must put aside the political rhetoric. We must look to the past to determine what led us to here. We must consider a future for the coalfields that does not include coal, because no matter what legislative or administrative changes Congress or President Trump push through, the market and technology have spoken and determined that coal miners are on their way out even if coal remains. This process was set in motion decades ago, and few people, including coal operators themselves, believe there will be a resurgence in coal jobs in Appalachia. I hope we can all find ways to engage in dialogue about the role the coal industry has played in creating and fostering poverty in the region. In the process, I hope we can avoid victim-blaming and stop dehumanizing people who have had no choice but to simply survive in poverty.
Note: If you are the sort who loves numbers and spreadsheets, here is a dataset I compiled from various sources while researching this essay. Sources include the US Census Bureau, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the US Energy Information Agency. If you are interested in obtaining the Excel file for your own research, I'm happy to share. Just drop me a note via the "Contact" tab.