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Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer originally from Eastern Kentucky and currently living in East Tennessee. He is an eighth-generation Appalachian. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
On Aug. 24, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives joined the Senate in advancing a $3.5 trillion infrastructure proposal that would greatly improve the lives of the people in Appalachia. For those of us in the mountains who have long campaigned for more public investment in our struggling region, this proposal is a long-awaited answer to our prayers.
Coal production jobs — once the lifeblood of our region — are rapidly disappearing. President Joe Biden’s proposal includes $1 billion for the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER. These funds would help diversify our economies, bring new revenue streams into our region and retrain workers for jobs in the new economy.
Extractive industries have ravaged both our landscape and our people. Pharmaceutical companies found a lucrative market in Appalachia due to workplace injuries in our coal mines and timber yards. In 2018, overdose mortality rates were 43 percent higher for adults in Appalachia than in the rest of the country.
The plan proposed by the White House includes $13 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Investments Supporting Partnerships In Recovery Ecosystems, or INSPIRE, program, which helps those in recovery from substance abuse reenter the workforce. Our region has been ravaged by the opioid crisis.
Appalachia will also benefit from the $332 billion that Biden proposes to spend on decent and affordable housing. That has been hard to come by here in the mountains. The pandemic — which brought in outsiders relocating from more urban areas — has only exacerbated the problem.
And then there’s the $726 billion allocated to the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee to enact universal pre-K, which will alleviate the cost of child care in an area considered a “child care desert.” Universal pre-K will also help children keep pace with their peers in more affluent districts and private schools.
Having myself benefited from Pell Grants — I never would have been able to afford college without them — I was excited to see that Biden wants to expand this program. This will allow more Appalachian students to realize their dream of a college education.
So, too, will the Biden administration’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free. Community college is an especially attractive option in Appalachia, where the nearest four-year university might be several hours away.
Additionally, free community college enables young people to train or retrain for the jobs of the future without incurring thousands of dollars in student loan debt. This is especially important for the communities that have been left behind, as coal mines closed and call center jobs were outsourced abroad.
Less obviously beneficial yet equally welcome is the proposed $135 billion investment to help fight forest fires. Though most Americans will no doubt think of forest fires as a West Coast threat, given the infernos that have recently ravaged parts of the Pacific states, our region is also susceptible to wildfires.
The tree line above my own house has yet to recover from the fire a few years back, which came dangerously close to the homes on my mountain. As climate change worsens, more record wildfires can be expected in our heavily wooded region.
Though it will not fix every problem in the Appalachians, the Democrats’ infrastructure plan has the power to transform Appalachia by investing in our people and our communities, from Pittsburgh to Pigeon Forge. It will educate our children, house our families, nurse our elders, and protect our land in ways long overdue and urgently needed.