For nearly a decade, Dan Buettner has researched the places people live longest, healthiest and happiest.
One of President Obama’s newly-announced “Promise Zones” will be set up in Bell County, Kentucky, which is in the heart of impoverished coal country. It has a 17 percent jobless rate.
The Promise Zone includes a $1.3 million loan fund for small businesses in the area, increased job training and special help in applying for anti-poverty programs.
Bell County Judge/Executive Albey Brock tells Here & Now‘s Meghna Charkrabarti that he is optimistic the program will help, but what his area really needs is new business to bring in jobs.
Brock says he has personally witnessed county residents selling off all of their possessions “just to get by.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
Well, in neighboring Kentucky, the coal industry has been shedding many, many jobs over the past many years, and parts of the state even have double-digit unemployment rates. But this week the president designated southeastern Kentucky as one of five newly declared promise zones, offering federal assistance to help stimulate the local economy.
But will it help? Joining us from the heart of coal country is Albey Brock. He's the judge executive, essentially the mayor, of Bell County in southeastern Kentucky. Judge Brock, welcome to the program.
ALBEY BROCK: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Pleasure to have you. So first of all, share your thoughts on hearing that your area is going to be one of the nation's promise zones.
BROCK: Well, we are cautiously optimistic about the promise of being in a promise zone.
CHAKRABARTI: And why cautiously optimistic?
BROCK: Well, when - you know, here on the ground, you know, the folks in our area and throughout Appalachia, particularly in this promise zone, are, you know, we're beat down pretty bad. There's, you know, high unemployment, you know, folks are desperate for help, and I don't want to give them a false hope in believing that this announcement from the president yesterday means that, you know, magically all our troubles will go away, when that's probably not going to be the case.
Will it help? It absolutely can't hurt. Are we thankful? Yes, very. So we'll see what the future holds.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I'm wondering if you can describe to us exactly what it's like there in Bell County because I see you've got a 17 percent unemployment rate. I mean, what does that mean on the ground? How are people getting by?
BROCK: Folks are getting by best they can. We're seeing those that have been unemployed the longest, they're selling their life's accumulated possessions in yard sales just to get through. We've seen some leave the region, you know, seeking work elsewhere. Right now we have men commuting to western Kentucky, which is a four-and-a-half-hour drive to the mining operations in western Kentucky, and staying away from their families for a week at a time just trying to pay their bills.
We have, over the course of the last six years probably, been in a war. The Environmental Protection Agency through regulation as it applies to coal, has created this situation that we have here, and what turned out to be most devastating were the rulings as it applied to, you know, the emissions in coal-fired power plants.
When you shutter a coal-fired power plant, that reduces the need for, you know, product, and without production, then you don't have jobs. And that's what we've seen throughout Appalachia is just a constant dwindling down. In the last two years, it's been somewhat of a genocide on jobs.
CHAKRABARTI: A genocide on jobs. Well, let me ask you about that, though, because I think the coal industry in the United States is a really good example of the fact that the entire economy is actually, it's shifting, it's changing. I mean, a lot of people would say that it's not EPA regulation but rather, say, the dropping price of natural gas that's really sort of cut the legs out from the coal industry, so not regulation - or even just the way that coal is being mined has changed, and that's cost a lot of jobs.
And basically what you're looking at is a future where coal can't be, regulation or not, it just can't be king anymore.
BROCK: When you're here on the ground, and you're living in the coal fields, we've dealt with dropped prices in natural gas on more than one occasion. That's not the first time the coal industry has experienced that. Mining technology and the way that it's taken from the field has been advancing over the course of the last 20 years. We had absorbed most of those issues as it applied to the job losses.
But we've seen a distinct drop and decline due to regulations that have been passed over the course of the last six years.
CHAKRABARTI: Well Judge Brock, let me ask you. One thing is true about the coal industry in that in regions like yours, the coal industry brought a lot of good-paying jobs to people without college degrees and not just those who were directly mining: you know, machine shop owners and workers and all the businesses that supported the industry, as you know.
BROCK: Sure, absolutely.
CHAKRABARTI: Now isn't this exactly one of the things that the promise zone idea is supposed to help with, that, you know, a lot of money is going to go to fund small business, $1.3 million in your area, increase job training and even future education for, you know, setting up Bell County to maybe be the home of a different kind of industry. Isn't that a good thing?
BROCK: That's a fantastic thing if that is actually what takes place. OK, and I'm hopeful of that. If we can, you know, negligibly incentivize business to come here, it will be fantastic, it will be a godsend. Something you said is very correct. These are high-paying jobs. An average coal miner makes $80,000 a year. What's happening now is they don't have anywhere to turn.
It's not that they can just go across the road and decide, well, I'm going to work for, you know, the trailer manufacturer or the auto parts maker, and I'm going to go ahead and take a cut in pay, and I'm only going to make $65,000 a year. They don't have that option. They're on federal programs to help them with assistance in making their house payments. They're on unemployment.
Many of them that have been laid off for a considerable length of time, they're on every possible government service right now, and some of that's going to run out. And these are proud, hard-working people. They don't want a handout; they want a job. You know, it's my understanding that the biggest advantage that we'll have with this designation is it will give us a leg up, for lack of a better way of saying it, when we do make a grant application.
But, ma'am, quite frankly, you know, one-time grants won't fix our problem. They make it a little easier in the short term, but in the long term, it does nothing but just kick the can down the road.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Albey Brock is the judge executive of Bell County, which is in southeastern Kentucky. It's part of the state's newly declared federal promise zone. Judge Brock, thank you so much for your time today.
BROCK: We appreciate you so much for having us. Thank you.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, raising the minimum wage is a central debate when we talk of the economy, and this year more than a dozen states are considering ballot initiatives that would significantly raise wages. We're going to have more on that and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.