Joe Biden's infrastructure plan would be godsend for struggling parts of Appalachia

  • Infrastructure in Appalachia has for years been neglected or left dilapidated.
  • Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan would provide jobs and a better standard of living for millions of Appalachians.
  • Republicans cannot be allowed to stand in the way of improving the roads, dams, and broadband Appalachia depends on.
  • Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer covering the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Every time it rains, I fear my power is going to go out. The bridge below my house frequently washes out, making it virtually impossible to get off this mountain. In my hometown, students don’t have reliable access to broadband, and so they have been left behind academically during the pandemic. 

No, I do not live in the third world. I live in Tennessee. 

Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan would be a godsend to Appalachia, the region I grew up in and still call home. It would revitalize our roads and bridges, our electrical grid and our dams, and further integrate us into the global community by bringing reliable high-speed internet to places where this has previously only been a dream. This would not only have obvious material benefits for the people of the mountains — it would be nice to be able to boil soup beans in a thunderstorm without fearing I’ll lose power — but would benefit us economically, bringing jobs and capital to our struggling and forgotten communities.

A boon to the boonies

Biden’s infrastructure plan was tailor-made with the mountains in mind. It provides for “targeted, sustainable, economic development efforts” by increasing funding for the Appalachian Regional Commissions POWER grant program, which helps our many communities who have suffered untold job losses in the dwindling coal industry — a decline which the pandemic has accelerated. To further this end, it also includes $40 billion to retrain workers made redundant by the dwindling fossil fuel industry for jobs in the green economy and beyond. This will in turn bring back thousands of union jobs to our region and allow us to pivot away from dependency on the long-declining coal industry, preparing our workforce for the future.

Those jobs will need broadband access, something sorely lacking in our impoverished region. Writing in the Lexington Herald-Leader last week, Kari Collins of the Red Bird Mission — which serves my home county of Leslie County, Kentucky — warned that the lack of broadband has left Appalachians behind as working and learning from home became increasingly the norm during the pandemic. “With the lack of a robust broadband infrastructure, schools, businesses, health care providers and homes in our rural areas will continue to go without the connectivity others take for granted,” she wrote. Luckily for us, Biden’s plan provides $100 billion to expand rural broadband access, which will help the poorest Appalachians connect to the modern world.

This is not just a jobs bill, though. In so many ways, Biden’s plan is an investment in the very mountains that make up Appalachia. It provides $16 billion to take care of the thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells strewn throughout the mountains. It earmarks $100 million for improvements to the water supply, crucial for our region as coal ash spills have for years polluted our water.  The plan also earmarks $50 billion to help make infrastructure resilient to the effects of climate change, reports the website 100 Days in Appalachia.

To say that these things would improve life for Appalachians is an understatement. Our region is in the throes of an economic crisis, one most of the country fails to acknowledge or understand. More than 20% of my county lives in poverty. One of our only hospitals closed last month, leaving thousands of people without access to a nearby hospital. As the economy has globalized and the world has become more connected, those of us in the mountains have been left behind. 

Biden’s infrastructure plan can change that. Appalachians know this because we’ve seen it done before. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal revolutionized life in these mountains. I live next to Cove Lake State Park which was formed when nearby Norris Dam was constructed as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a program born of the New Deal which brought electricity to millions of rural Southerners. 

The benefits of this are tangible, even today. My grandmother can still remember when her home was first fitted for electricity, and what that meant for her struggling family. Studying became easier as night was no longer a barrier, new technologies reliant on electricity were suddenly accessible to those who could afford them, and new industries were able to bring economic development to the mountains.

Congress can’t screw this up 

The New Deal changed the lives of millions of Appalachians, providing good paying jobs and bringing our region into the 20th century. Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan stands to do the same for us living the 21st century, but it requires the political will to get it done. 

This is, unfortunately, not something we have seen from our elected representatives. Despite the obvious benefits of this plan, Republican lawmakers insist on playing politics. For years, Mitch McConnell has called for the Brent-Spence Bridge between Ohio and Kentucky — a piece of transportation infrastructure vital to our nation’s commerce — to be replaced. It’s a bridge I know well, having travelled the “Hillbilly Highway” between Dayton, Ohio (where I was born and partially grew up) and the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee my entire life. It is a bridge that is visibly rusting and creaky, and I fear for my life every time I cross. Biden’s infrastructure plan would finally replace this deathtrap, but Mitch McConnell has vowed to oppose it. For Mitch, the putrescent bridge isn’t as important as his political grudge.

He is not alone in scoring a few political points at Appalachia’s expense. Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from here in Tennessee, tweeted that “President Biden’s proposal is about anything but infrastructure,” pointing out it provides $400 billion for elder care — as though that is somehow a problem. Yet as an Appalachian with elderly grandparents, I want my government to invest in elder care so that I know, should they need it, my grandparents will be cared for when I go off to work. I don’t care if you call it infrastructure or broccoli. It will improve the life of Appalachians and is a worthwhile investment in our future.

That is something we in the mountains desperately need. For too long, our environment has been destroyed, our jobs have disappeared, our communities have been left to decay, and our people have been ignored. We have been what was referred to in the 2016 election as America’s “forgotten tribe.” 

Well, Joe Biden is remembering us. Just as the New Deal did nearly 100 years ago, this infrastructure plan will drastically and materially improve the lives of millions of Appalachians from Pittsburgh to Pigeon Forge. It is time for our elected representatives to put politics aside and help rebuild our region, brick by brick and mountain by mountain.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer covering the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy. His work has appeared at The Independent, Salon, Newsweek, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere.

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