WHITESBURG, Ky.—For a long time, coal dominated this remote region of rolling hilltops and muddy roads near the Tennessee and Virginia borders. But when the nation started to move away from coal-fired power plants, and giant companies pulled up stakes and closed down mines, shedding 7,000 jobs in just three years, the people left too. Some went to western Kentucky for mining jobs there, others headed to Lexington or Louisville. Nearly every county in eastern Kentucky lost jobs between 2000 and 2010.
Even before the mines started closing, children who grew up in Appalachia were often told to get out if they wanted to succeed. One-third of the region lives in poverty. In one eastern Kentucky county in 2009, government benefits accounted for more than half of the county’s personal income.
People in the region are still looking for what is going to replace coal and government funding. That doesn’t mean a car factory or a different type of mining: Few people here want to see coal replaced by another extractive economy, allowing outsiders to get wealthy off the sweat of local workers.
Many of the people returning to the region say that any lasting, successful economic program is going to have to be home grown.
“How do we move forward as a region? The way that we do that is from within the region,” says Ethan Hamblin, who, at 23, is one of the many young residents who has made a commitment to staying in the area. “It’s not seeking outside funding, it’s getting the people on the ground working together across county lines, across state lines, and thinking about how we do that work together.”