In a life that has brought him from the coal country of Appalachian Ohio to the U.S. Congress and the governor’s mansion, Ted Strickland has seen up close both the challenges faced by his home region and the promise and frustration in trying to solve those problems through the political system.
Strickland served as governor of Ohio from 2007 to 2011. Before that, he was in the United States House of Representatives for 12 years, representing Ohio’s 6th congressional district, which covers a large swatch of Appalachian Ohio. The son of a steelworker and the first in his family to go to college, politics wasn’t his first—or second—career. He served an ordained United Methodist minister before getting a doctorate in psychology and working for more than a decade as a consulting psychologist at the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
Q: What are the economic development opportunities and challenges for Appalachian Ohio?
Appalachian Ohio has a long history of being marginalized and exploited. Much of the economic activity has been extraction of natural resources: timber, coal, oil, and gas. Of course, that’s continuing today, especially with oil and natural gas. I use the word exploited because, with the exception of the jobs, the area didn’t benefit greatly from the resources that were extracted.
I come from Appalachian Ohio. My family is about as Appalachian as you can get. I served Appalachian counties in Congress for 12 years. And I was governor of Ohio for four years.
When I was in the House of Representatives, there was a large uranium enrichment plant in my congressional district. At one time it was the only facility in America that produced a finished fuel for nuclear fuel plants. There’s still cleanup work going on there, but uranium is no longer being enriched. That was a major blow to the area. There were two deep coal mines in my district. Those are now closed not because of government overreach or environmental regulations but because the coal was mined out. There have been so many major blows. People have struggled mightily. As governor, much of my time went to trying to hold the state together during the financial crisis. Unfortunately, I have a greater acquaintance with the region’s problems than with the solutions.
There are lots of reasons why people with high school educations were able to earn living-wage salaries in the past but are now struggling. Free markets are creating most of the challenges. For decades, miners have been replaced with mechanization. In this region, much of the coal has been mined out. And where it isn’t, natural gas is often cheaper.
I think the people in the region have been misled in ways that keeps them from dealing with the reality of the situation. Politicians, perhaps even including myself, haven’t been as candid as we need to be; so many people still hold on to the hope that an economy of the past will return.
There needs to be a realistic assessment of what the region can do to encourage jobs that are compatible with the skills and capacities. There’s a proposal for an ethane cracker. If it happens, it will bring in lots of jobs. While we can work for those sorts of projects that will help specific counties, for Appalachian Ohio as a whole to reach its potential, I think we need to focus on the economies of the future rather than the economies of the past.
Q: What would let Appalachian Ohio reach its potential?
For too long, we’ve held out for some kind of silver bullet. I was always looking for a silver bullet when I was in the House for Appalachia. If we can get x, it will solve everything. I’ve realized there’s no silver bullet. But changing that mindset is difficult.
Education and post-secondary training offer a foundation. I believe the primary responsibility of state government is to ensure high quality and affordable education is available to its citizens. That’s especially important in an area like the Appalachian region.
Those coal mines in my district were owned by American Electric Power (AEP). The company was able to tell us the coal was running out a year before the mines closed. Working with the Department of Labor, AEP, and area community colleges, classrooms were established at the mine site. Miners would take a class before or after their shift.
When I spoke at one of the community college graduations, several people told me they had been miners and were receiving degrees in nursing or IT. I think there’s value in retraining and creating jobs in smaller-scale ways rather than always pursuing the thousand-employee businesses.
We need to be supporting entrepreneurs. There’s very promising work going on with solar startups. That should be encouraged. We need to be sure small businesses and schools in Appalachia have access to the same infrastructure that the rest of the state has.
Broadband exists in most parts of Appalachia, but a lot of the last mile build-out hasn’t happened. Finishing that work, which means it’s available to every home and business, not just in theory but in practice, that needs government assistance.
Q: That kind of infrastructure needs public-sector support?
The private sector is not going to be interested in building infrastructure in Appalachia. And for a reason. The terrain makes it more expensive to build infrastructure and do development and there are fewer people there as potential customers. It was, and in some ways continues to be, a more isolated part of the country.
Much like the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia is a region that suffers disproportionately because of history and geography. The duplicity and deceit that the people of this region have experienced over time is incredible. For a time, the coal barons owned everything. They owned the mines, the grocery stores, and the houses. They actually paid their workers with company-issued scrip, instead of money. It could be used to pay rent on company-owned houses or to buy food at the company store, but it also trapped workers. That was a horrendous kind of exploitation. It was a long time ago, but I think, in some ways, the region continues to be affected by that history. Appalachia is an area where people work hard and do their best under really difficult circumstances.
Donald Trump got all these votes from Appalachia, then his budget called for the elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Appalachia would be in a hell of a lot worse shape now if the state and federal government hadn’t helped.
There was a time when there was a real interest in and concern for Appalachia. Lyndon Johnson came to Ohio to tout his War on Poverty. Bobby Kennedy went to West Virginia. Appalachia had been virtually bypassed by the interstate highway system. The Appalachian Regional Commission developed Appalachia’s highway system. The sewer and water systems that exist are largely due to outside support, much of it specifically because of ARC funds.
In Jackson, Ohio, it came to my attention that people were developing mouth cancers. Their well water was contaminated with arsenic. The federal government paid to connect them to a city water system. That community could never have afforded it. The private sector isn’t going to do it. It takes different forms, but I think we all benefit from what government does. Large corporations certainly benefit from being American companies.
Ronald Reagan said government is the problem, not the answer. But if you have that attitude toward the government, eventually it leads to every man for himself—I’ll get mine and the hell with everybody else. Unfortunately, I think that’s an attitude that a lot of people embrace.
Q: What do people who have never been to Appalachian Ohio need to understand about the place?
There’s no single Appalachia in my judgement. It is very diverse; you can find everything. Athens is a little bit of San Francisco carved out and plopped down in Ohio. It is very progressive. A few miles away there are areas characterized by the most conservative thinking and values.
I am infuriated by J. D. Vance being looked upon as the interpreter of Appalachia because of his book, Hillbilly Elegy. He talks about lazy people wanting something for nothing. Appalachia is frequently presented as backward, dumb, and crude. There is some of that in Appalachia, but there’s some of that everywhere.
I grew up in Scioto County on a dirt road called Duck Run. My dad worked at the steel mills in Portsmouth. He had a fifth-grade education, and he was really a smart guy.
There were nine of us kids. Two of us finished high school. I have a PhD and two master’s degrees. I had siblings who had more intellectual capacity than I have who never finished high school. It was a difference of opportunity. I was the youngest son. I came along after things were a little better. Regardless of education, they could do things I wouldn’t know how to start to do. They were resourceful.
My parents lost three homes, one to a flood, one to a bank during the Depression, and one to a fire. I remember my sister carrying me out of the house in the middle of the night. I was around five years old. My dad got home from the steel mill to see the sky lit up. We all stood on the road and watched our house burn to the ground. We had no insurance.
My dad and my oldest brothers lined the chicken shack with cardboard and set up cots. An old smokehouse down the hill served as a kitchen until they converted our barn into a house. My mom and dad never quit. There was a determination to do whatever had to be done to survive.
Dad drank a lot; there was some violence and chaos. But there was also a sense of community. He would never miss work because of a hangover. That would have been so opposed to his personal sense of integrity and what he needed to do as a father. So often Appalachians are presented as dumb, shiftless, inbred. It’s a terrible picture. The Appalachians I know are really hard-working people.
Roy Rogers grew up about a quarter of a mile away on Duck Run. Branch Ricky, the man who desegregated baseball when he signed Jackie Robinson, grew up three miles down that road. Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial, she’s from Athens. My point is that I see a lot of capability and creativity in Appalachia. Looking to the future, I think a grassroots, bottom-up approach is the answer for the region. If we provide the resources, people with good ideas and strong motivation can start businesses and ultimately succeed.
Q: What do Appalachians want?
The people of this region, they’re good people. They work hard and they’re not asking a lot out of life. They want a decent job, a decent place to live, and the ability to take care of themselves and their families.
For certain segments of the population, there is a feeling of dread or despair when it comes to their future. Some people are doing very well in Appalachia, but there’s an incredible disparity between people who are doing very well and those who are struggling. Not only income disparity but the wealth disparity, which is huge, the greatest it has been since before the Great Depression. Too many people are fearful that their kids aren’t going to do as well as they’ve done.
I’ve reached certain conclusions that are not necessarily data driven, but I think one of the reasons that Trump was elected—he exaggerated and lied to do it—somehow, he tapped into this sense that “I’m getting screwed.” He was able to convince coal miners that he cared about them. A neighbor told me Trump just seems like a regular guy. I was a psychologist long before I was a politician, and I think Trump is as far from a regular guy as you can get, but he was able to get people to identify with him. Now he’s screwing them every chance he gets.
Q: How has the opioid crisis impacted the area?
The drug issue has been devastating, especially to Appalachian and coal communities. The crisis has touched everybody. I lost a nephew to Oxycontin overdose. I believe that there is a connection between lack of hope or economic despair and the appeal of the drug that will help you feel better, at least for a period of time.
My father and brothers worked at a thriving steel mill in Portsmouth. It’s long since been torn down. A Wal-Mart is on the site now. Portsmouth had three large shoe manufacturing companies. They are all gone now.
Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic paints a very vivid picture of Portsmouth in the heyday as well as describing what happened later when the work was gone, and opiates arrived. If you read Dreamland, it’s easy to understand why it happened and why it continues.
Q: You mentioned the challenge people face accessing resources in the region. Could you explain that more?
One morning, I was riding to Athens from Columbus. Between Nelsonville and Athens, which is 13 miles, I saw a man hitchhiking. He was poorly dressed, and I usually don’t pick up hitchhikers, but it was really cold. It took me time to decide, so he was puffing when he ran up and got into the car, and said, “Thanks. People don’t really stop, and I can understand why.”
As we talked, he told me he was on his way to drug rehab. “If you miss three times they kick you out of the program. I haven’t missed any yet, but I’ll be late this morning. I don’t think they will count it against me.” Then he told me he had been in prison. I’d worked at the prison in Lucasville, so I asked if he had ever been there. He said, “Oh no. My classification never got that bad.” He said he assaulted his ex-wife’s boyfriend. “My daughter told me this guy had touched her inappropriately, so I just went and beat the hell out of him. I got three and a half years.”
He seemed like a decent person trying to put his life back together. Life is tough for some people, really tough. If you live in Nelsonville and the drug treatment is in Athens, how do you get there if you don’t have a car? It’s different from being in the city. In rural areas, public transportation, by and large, doesn’t exist. Without a car, it’s very difficult to participate in the economy. When you’ve been in prison or have dealt with addiction, it’s hard to get a job. But someone willing to walk to drug rehab is an example of the determination that characterizes the region.
I think if you’re fairly comfortable, if you don’t have to think about eating at a restaurant or taking your family to a movie or driving a car that works, it’s hard to understand the reality of people who are living through really tough times. It really angers me when people say that people who are poor are poor because they don’t work hard.
When I complain, my wife says, “Ted, I don’t want to hear it. Donnie Martin works as hard as you and he makes a lot less money.” Donnie fixes furnaces in Lucasville, Ohio. When we conflate success and wealth with effort and work, I think it misses the experience many people face.
Interview conducted and edited by Ted O’Callahan.