Last time on Grapple, you heard about Mahanoy City, a small town in Pennsylvania’s northeastern coal region. In this episode, we dig deeper into the loss of coal with Planet Money co-founder Adam Davidson and hear how other coal regions are creating new economic opportunities with The New York Times’ Mid-Atlantic bureau chief Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
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Adam Davidson has spent time reporting in the northeastern Pennsylvania community of Wilkes-Barre — less than an hour away from Mahanoy City.
He profiled the city in a New York Times Magazine article, “Blaming Trade and Voting Trump in the Rust Belt.”
We talked with Davidson about what’s happened to communities throughout the Rust Belt.
“There is a large percentage of Americans who feel they have lost enormous ground. The shorthand is the non-college educated white male who sort of had the rule of the roost for a long time, especially in the Rust Belt, towns like Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, much of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. And that ended. Many of them have seen their opportunities dwindle. They’ve seen their children who do have opportunity and ambition leave. They’ve seen the people who stay get lost into opioid addiction.”
We also wondered what Davidson had to say about NAFTA, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Has it done the United States any good?
“Overall, NAFTA has slightly helped America. A little bit, but barely so any of us would notice. But it has hurt specific groups disproportionately. That’s typical in trade by the way.”
To Davidson, northeastern Pennsylvania should theoretically have a better economy than it does.
“Northeastern Pennsylvania is a unique place in the country. This is a real land of opportunity. It’s really close to New York City. It’s really close to Washington, D.C. It’s really close to like two-thirds of the population of the United States. It’s really beautiful. It’s close enough that you can really interact with these much bigger economies, but far enough away that you have cheap land prices in abundantly beautiful land.”
Moving Beyond Coal in Appalachia
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, the Mid-Atlantic bureau chief for The New York Times, has spent extensive time reporting in Eastern Kentucky about new efforts old coal towns are pursuing.
In her article, “Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future,” Stolberg highlights new companies being formed to employ former coal workers.
We talked with Stolberg about what some of those new initiatives are.
“There are all of these nascent optimistic efforts run by people with deep ties to the land there to try to turn this region around. The idea for BitSource which is the Pikeville company that is teaching miners how to code — it was founded by two Pikeville business men who run a company that is a land excavation company that lost 70 percent of it’s customers in the coal downturn. Their names are Rusty Justice and Len Parrish and they started thinking, ‘what can we do to diversify our own company and employ our own people.’ In the little city of Whitesburg, Appalshop, like Appalachia, also has spun off a new tiny tech firm trying to hire local people. There are people in eastern Kentucky, former minors or people who are in mining related businesses, who are involved in farming. There are two people in Floyd County, Kentucky, farming—in hemp farming.”
We also asked about the psychological impact that the loss of coal has had on Eastern Kentucky and the region’s ability to turn around.
“A lot of the work here in thinking about the future is in a way, psychological. These are people who’ve been tied to the coal industry for so long and also who have been beaten down or felt so beaten down by the job losses there that they really can’t imagine anything else for themselves and for the region ... It’s getting people in the region to believe that their region can be something more than the coal industry.”
Listen to the previous episode: Mahanoy City, The End of Coal Country
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin