Here’s something President Trump hasn’t tweeted but should: He plans to nominate a new head of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
This is significant because it means that Trump has given up on his plan to abolish the agency, which provides economic development funding for a rural, economically-struggling part of the country.
Trump’s intention to do away with the Appalachian Regional Commission — spelled out in the budget he presented last year, and which Congress has yet to act on — seemed spectacularly at odds with his political rhetoric and his own political interests.
Trump won thunderous margins — sometimes historically so — in Appalachia and no wonder. Appalachia has been trending Republican for some years now, drawn by the cultural conservatism of the Republican Party and repelled by the cultural liberalism of Democrats. That alone would have meant a big vote for any Republican in 2016; Trump built on that by his enthusiastic embrace of coal (although keep in mind that most of Appalachia doesn’t have any coal to mine) and his general declaration to “make America great again.”
Appalachia’s economic fortunes were never great and its story over the past 53 years since the commission’s founding in 1965 is certainly a mixed one. Poverty rates and teen pregnancy rates are down, literacy rates and high school graduation rates are up. By some key measures, Appalachia is no longer an “other” but more in tune with the rest of the nation. And yet that still hasn’t been enough because the economy has changed. Traditional industries have withered away as the industrial age gives way to the information age. Topography has always made economic development in Appalachia a challenge, and the new economy isn’t always a good fit for Appalachia — often demanding a high-skilled workforce that can move digits around on a computer screen.
It’s only natural that Appalachia voters would embrace a candidate who spoke directly to them and vaguely promised to end their pain. And yet in office, Trump has done nothing of the sort – and often done exactly the opposite. He wanted to abolish the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency specifically charged with trying to improve the economy of Appalachia. He wanted to abolish the Economic Development Administration, another economic development agency whose brief covered economically-distressed regions everywhere. He wanted to abolish other programs focused on rural America.
These may seem an alphabet soup of federal bureaucracy but here’s what they actually do. They have paid for cybersecurity programs at University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Mountain Empire Community College and Southwest Virginia Community College — programs to train a new workforce in new economy jobs, jobs that could be performed in Appalachia. They’ve paid for broadband internet which creates the opportunity to actually have those cybersecurity jobs in Appalachia. They’ve paid for the initial development of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, which is now home to some 3,000 jobs and the hub of a technology sector in Southwest Virginia. The commission also bankrolled the biggest share of Floyd County’s “innovation center” that hopes to attract high-tech start-ups to that rural county.
They’ve paid for water systems, including one grant last year of $500,000 in Wise County to “eliminate public and environmental health concerns related to raw sewage.” It’s the 21st century and we still have raw sewage floating around in parts of Appalachia? Yet Trump wanted to zero out all that funding. This seems to be the Trump way — rile people up about football players who don’t kneel for the national anthem (how many actually don’t?) but not do a thing to actually improve the lives of people even in the Trump heartland. Tweeting is not governance.
Fortunately, not all Republicans agreed — most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky, a state where more than half the counties are covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Perhaps that’s why Trump’s nominee to lead the commission is a McConnell staffer — Tim Thomas, and why Trump’s new budget proposes to retain the agency.
All this matters to us because the commission’s service area includes 25 counties and eight cities in Virginia — pretty much everything west of the Blue Ridge and south of Interstate 64 with the exception of Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem (plus a few exceptions such as Bath and Highland counties to the north, and Patrick County to the south). This part of Virginia owes some thanks to a Kentucky politician.