In 1965, Appalachia had few good roads, high unemployment and a reputation as a third world country wholly contained within the United States.
Children were often hungry, medical care was far from many of the people, and grainy, black and white images of abject poverty streamed into television sets across the nation. Houses often had no running water, only a single stove for heat, and the people who lived in them had no way to do better.
“There were an awful lot of good people, awful far down on their luck,” said Thomas N. Bethell.
Bethell, now a public relations consultant in Washington, D.C., but then working for a publisher in Boston, Mass., first came to Kentucky in 1963 to learn more about the wildcat strikes he had been reading about in newspapers. He stopped in Louisville to see famed Courier-Journal columnist John Ed Pierce to get him to explain the situation. Pierce told him he had come to the wrong place.
“He said, ‘If you want to know what’s going on, you need to get yourself down to Whitesburg and talk to Tom and Pat Gish and Harry Caudill,’” Bethell recalled.
He did, and three years later he quit his publishing job, got a job with the Appalachian Volunteers and moved to Whitesburg to supervise members of the newly minted “domestic Peace Corps,” a federal program known as Volunteers In Service To America. VISTA members have worked in Letcher County and throughout Appalachia for the past 52 years, encouraging volunteer service, helping find private financing for needed projects and building the capacity of local organizations to help their own communities.
“They were very resourceful kids, and they were very highly regarded by the people they helped,” Bethell said.
Carol Ison, director of Cowan Community Center about six miles south of Whitesburg, said the center had VISTA members helping it beginning in the 1990s up until last year, and had “a succession of VISTAs” during the time the center was affiliated with Save The Children.
They worked with child literacy, technology, physical education, and nutrition. While center staff had regular jobs and couldn’t do all the work required, VISTAs were available anytime they were needed, Ison said, 24 hours a day, seven days a week if necessary.
“They could engage more people. They could do the running,” Ison said.
Now, after more than a half-century of service, a draft budget prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget includes a plan to altogether eliminate VISTA and its parent agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps), according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
The plan would also eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, which planned and financed the Appalachian Corridor highway system that includes U.S. 119 and US 23, and water and sewer projects and economic development groups across the region. Also on the chopping block are the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps finance Kentucky Educational Television and National Public Radio and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which gives grants in an attempt to curb drug trafficking and addiction, both major problems in Appalachia.
Many of the programs have been viewed as “liberal,” and have been traditional targets of Republican members of Congress, but no matter which party was in power in Congress, VISTA has enjoyed the support of both Republican and Democratic presidents.
The National Service Act of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush, created the Commission on National and Community Service and funded pilot projects across the country. Bush’s successor, President Bill Clinton, proposed and signed the bill creating AmeriCorps in 1994 and folded VISTA into the CNCS. After the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush added 25,000 members to AmeriCorps’ ranks to help the country recover, and President Barack Obama, expanded it again, signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and adding a “FEMA Corps” to help in the immediate aftermath of national disasters, and STEM AmeriCorps, which helps improve science, technology, engineering and math instruction in middle schools.
T. Allan Comp, a historian who recently retired from the Office of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement headquarters in Washington, ran an AmeriCorps VISTA program out of OSM. The Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team worked on water quality issues in the Appalachian coalfields, then expanded into the hard-rock mining region of Colorado and New Mexico, and into other federal agencies within the Department of the Interior.
Comp said 70 percent of the VISTAs in the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team came from outside the region, but 60 percent of those people stayed and made their homes here when their terms were up, a significant influx of young professionals into a region where migration out, not in, is the norm.
“I find it shocking that an administration that said it was going to be the champion of the neglected and the forgotten would eliminate a program that helps those people more than any other program out there,” Comp said. “Killing it is just rich guys saving money so they don’t have to pay taxes. It’s certainly not a thoughtful and educated government policy.”
Unlike most people paid by the federal government, AmeriCorps members are not considered “employees.” Like the military, they are “members,” and they don’t “work,” they “serve” for one year terms, up to a maximum of three years. They are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are paid a poverty-level “stipend” rather than a salary. They can receive an education award similar to the GI Bill for the first two years of their service that can be used to pay college tuition or repay student loans.
Evan Smith, an attorney who works primarily on black lung cases, was one of the VISTAs in the program Comp ran. A native of Whitesburg, he now lives in Floyd County, but still practices law in Whitesburg.
He said VISTA is a high impact program, and for places already teetering under the weight of high unemployment and low wages, eliminating it will make matters worse.
“Programs like VISTA are providing really what it takes for communities that are barely on the brink of making it at all to have a little hope of progress toward escaping the cycle they’re in,” he said. “I think the thing that’s hardest to put your finger on when you do that cost-benefit analysis, is that VISTAs provide a sense that there’s something going on in a place. I think really, when you see the worst levels of drug overdoses, when you see these communities that really just go into that death spiral, is when there’s that feeling that not only is today bad, but tomorrow is going to be worse.”
Operation UNITE, a nonprofit that runs drug-abuse prevention, treatment and enforcement efforts in a 32-county area of eastern and southern Kentucky, and the SOAR Initiative, which is focused on economic development in a 54-county area in eastern and southern Kentucky, both make extensive use of VISTA members. The SOAR program uses 52 VISTAs. Four UNITE VISTAs serve in Letcher County alone. In addition, the Appalachian Regional Commission on January 19 approved a $100,000 grant for UNITE’s drug abuse prevention, treatment and enforcement efforts.
Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, a Republican who represents the 5th District of Kentucky and is on the House Republican Steering Committee, founded UNITE, and is cofounder of SOAR.
Danielle Smoot, communications director for Rogers at his Somerset office, issued the following statement in response to questions about the draft budget plan:
“The Congressman can’t comment about a draft of a budget proposal that has not been presented to members of Congress for action. However, Congressman Rogers has a longstanding history of support for programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission and has, in fact, helped rescue the agency’s funding in the past. The Congressman will carefully consider any proposed budget cuts that impact critical programs for southern and eastern Kentucky.”
Rogers is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and served as its chairman from 2011-2016. He currently serves on House Appropriations subcommittees on State and Foreign Operations, Defense, and Justice and Science. He is chairman of the Subcommitte on State and Foreign Operations.
All in all, the cuts to AmeriCorps, the ARC, and the other programs listed in the draft budget proposal would amount to $2.5 billion, out of a $4 trillion budget, about two-thirds the cost of one Zumwalt-class Naval destroyer.
Bethell said he doesn’t like to compare the cost to military equipment because, “in this country, we don’t have to trade off. We can have both. What’s not being talked about is a progressive taxation system” that would increase taxes on the extremely wealthy to pay for needed programs.
“I think it’s really a matter of who do they care about — the people who are out at the end of the line, getting a little help from the ARC and listening to public radio?” Bethell said. “No, they care very little about those people.”