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Friday, January 10, 2014

Impoverished Part Of Kentucky Declared ‘Promise Zone’

A view from Pine Mountain State Park in Bell County, Kentucky, one of President Obama's newly-announced Promise Zones. (Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

A view from Pine Mountain State Park in Bell County, Kentucky, one of President Obama’s newly-announced Promise Zones. (Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

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.”


  • Albey Brock, Judge/Executive of Bell County, Kentucky.



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.


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.

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  • Fiscally_Responsible

    Regarding Obama’s “Promise Zone” for this part of Kentucky which has suffered significant job losses due to the demonization of coal by lefties, I would keep in mind other promises recently made by this administration. “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.PERIOD. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. PERIOD.”

    • PAPlan

      Those job losses were happening long before Obama was elected. Coal is dying because of a lack of demand. Natural gas, nuclear, solar, and wind are all cleaner and more cost effective options. The administration’s environmental policies may not help, but they certainly aren’t the main cause. Coal is dead, it’s not coming back. My grandfather was a coal miner, but he was smart enough 20 years ago to tell me that it was on its way out as a viable industry.

      • it_disqus

        Coal is not “dying because of a lack of demand”. It is dying because of government intervention. You can debate whether the government intervention is warranted, but throwing solar and wind in there as a cause shows ignorance of the real driving factors no matter what your papaw told you 20 years ago.

        • PAPlan

          I’m sorry, are you an energy expert? The coal deposits left in Ohio, PA, WV, and KY are harder and harder to get to. Gone are the days when coal was cheap and easy.

          I’m not sure why you think solar and wind aren’t viable competitors? I assume it’s because Fox News told you that they were being propped up by federal subsidies. Though they probably left out all of the subsidies that coal receives.

          • jonathanpulliam

            My, but you are full of misinformation. Perhaps, given that you post from behind a pseudonym, it would be more accurate to describe your post as intentional “disinformation”. Coal and natural gas both have a mercury problem. That is unless you believe dispersing large amounts of mercury into the biosphere is a good thing. Solar photovoltaic is not viable, at least not yet, because the cells cannot yet produce more electricity during their service lives than it takes to manufacture them. This is irrefutable. Moreover, the cost of inverters, theft-prone installation hardware such as copper wiring, and the fact that the lead acid storage batteries needed to make such a system useful beyond “science project” level are environmentally disastrous (lead mining, ore transport, and smelting spew twice the amount of lead into the biosphere than is recovered to produce battery storage cells. Wind farms already slice and dice more endangered species of birds than are killed by any other single cause.

          • Bell County Resident

            PAPlan, you are mistaken. Coal still makes up a large percentage of your energy needs. The problem in Bell County is that the jobs in this industry are almost gone. There is plenty coal to mine. Nationally the same amount of coal is being produced as last year and the year before. But now the bulk is coming from the large companies. The smaller crews have been forced out by all the fees as after they pay them they cannot make a profit from their returns on coal.

            We can argue about the coal all day, but the fact remains is coal employed many residents and the income is gone. The majority of jobs are now far enough away that families would have to move. Some have.

            There are not alternative job choices in the area. Most pay significantly less and there are few available. With the unemployed miners, you are talking about people who worked 60+ hours a week and on their only day off went to church and spent their day with their families. These are good people who don’t mind putting in a hard days work being forced on the welfare of the country as their are no alternatives to turn to.

            The removal of the coal industry was catalyst of what left the county desolate, but this is about bringing in industry and retraining the population to live past it.

            This is what our administration and our elected officials need to do when they make decisions that leave communities without their main form of revenue. It should happen earlier, but I am happy it’s going to be available now.

          • PAPlan

            I agree that there is plenty of coal to mine. But the fact remains that it is much harder to get to than in the past. That makes it more expensive, which in turn puts the small guys out of business. I never said that the bulk of our energy doesn’t come from coal. Just that it is seeing more competition from other sources and that trend will continue.

            Also, environmental regulations are necessary. Just look at what has happened with the chemical spill. I know the good people of Appalachia are hardworking and family-oriented. I grew up there and much of my family still live there. Now many are suffering from undrinkable water. Much worse could happen, and it will if we are not careful about regulating the activities of coal companies.

            I agree that this initiative is needed and I’m glad they are going to work to retrain people in Eastern Kentucky. I hope that this is successful and new industries are attracted to the area. I don’t think you and I disagree as much as you might think. The only point of contention is that this administration did not kill the coal industry. It has been suffering for years. Central Appalachia has long been the poorest part of the country and coal jobs have been disappearing for decades.

  • Active_listener

    It would be great if y’all could post the transcript of the interview with Brock. He brought up so many good points about life in his county that this article doesn’t mention.

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Hi there, We’re looking into why the transcript is not showing up and hope it will be there soon. Thanks for listening! Best, RR/Web Producer

  • jonathanpulliam

    Ba-roke Hussein al-Qaenia’s domestic broken promise zones, broken Obamacare, baroke, ba-roke, broke. Morally bankrupt, flat broke.

  • isaac williams

    I wish Charkrabarti had bothered to follow up with, and correct her guest on the show to really get more value out of the interview. At the end when he declares one time infusions of money will only kick the can down the road, she does nothing to correct the misconception that this is a one time donation. It’s not. It’s a fund being set up as seed money for small businesses that want to start in the region. It would have been much more interesting and useful to hear the Judge County Executive’s opinion on whether these kinds of loans to new businesses will help, if this kind of seed money is what is needed in eastern Kentucky, or if there are other barriers to entrepeneurship for people. Also would have been great to get his opinion on any other part of the ‘promise zone’ plan. It’s like she didn’t even bother to get the background information about what she was reporting on and was placated by well worn platitudes about eastern Kentucky’s economy. Shoddy reporting really does a disservice to the guests and the listeners.

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