Rural Kentucky is the backbone of our state and has made vital contributions to the economic growth of our country. From the coal miner whose work kept our lights on to the farmers who keep food on our plates, the prosperity of our state and country would not have been possible– and still would not be–without Kentucky’s rural communities.
In recent years, though, Sen. Mitch McConnell turned his back on our rural communities, and the rest of Washington followed suit. Rural counties go without clean water and high-speed internet, and family farmland continues to shrink as Big Ag has grown to dominate the industry. In coal towns, jobs continue to dwindle, and schools continue to struggle to support the next generation. As a mother of three small children, it pains me to see families go without the basic services they need to build a better life.
Given all that Kentucky’s rural communities have done, and still do, for our country, Washington and especially Sen. McConnell should be doing more to guarantee rural communities remain vibrant. As we rebuild from this pandemic and economic crisis, our leaders need to think about how to partner with our rural communities to come back stronger than before. Here’s what our leaders need to do:
There are two major threats to family farms: large, corporate farms, which Mitch has empowered while pushing small family farmers out of business, and trade wars that hurt the ability of small farms to export their goods.
Between 2007 and 2012, Kentucky had the greatest relative loss of farmland in the country; we lost a devastating 10% of our milk producers in 2018 alone.
To make sure we protect Kentucky’s farms and ensure they can remain strong, we must:
- Implement Fair Trade Policies That Work for Farmers: Trade policies in recent years haven’t done enough to account for the fact that more than 20% of farmed products are exported. We need trade deals that make our farmers, the producers for our country and the world, a priority and ensure that our farmed goods do not have damaging tariffs placed on them.
- Help Farmers Post-COVID: We need to ensure aid is equitably distributed across the country and to the farmers most in need.
- Strengthen Antitrust Enforcement to Protect Family Farms: Mitch has allowed big farms to dominate our agricultural economy at the expense of family farms. We should strengthen antitrust enforcement, including the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts and the Packers and Stockyards Act to protect small and medium-sized farmers and producers.
- Prevent Big Corporations from Abusing Agricultural Patents: Large corporations like Monsanto and John Deere leverage their wealth and political connections to dominate the agricultural space. Small farmers have lost the right to repair their own equipment and have also lost millions in lawsuits from honest mistakes in seed procurement. We need to give land grant public universities more autonomy over patents so big corporations can no longer take advantage of small farmers.
- Support Our Hemp Industry: Mitch failed to set the hemp industry up for success, and when it began to struggle, he said he didn’t know anything about the issues. We need to fix the bureaucratic problems hurting the industry and ensure that oversupply doesn’t hurt our farmers and workers moving forward. We also need independent THC content testing so that our farmers’ labor is protected.
- Legalize Growing Medical Marijuana: Having seen how it benefits some of my fellow veterans who struggle with chronic pain, I believe making medical marijuana federally legal is essential to people’s health. With that legalization comes a potential industry for Kentucky: we can change laws to allow our farmers to begin growing marijuana.
- Encourage Young People to Take Up Farming: We need to ensure small, family farms can continue for generations by supporting educational programs, like 4-H, for young and beginning farmers to gain the skills necessary to succeed.
In 2016, the number of coal jobs in Kentucky hit the lowest recorded number in 118 years. In his 36 years in office, Mitch has not done enough to help coal miners who are still working and those who have been laid off. He brushes off those struggling with Black Lung Disease while ensuring that CEOs get massive bonuses as companies go bankrupt and leave workers with nothing.
There is a better way for coal miners who powered our country for decades. One of the basic tenets of leadership I learned in the military is you don’t leave your fellow Americans behind. We need to pay back the debts we owe our coal communities. Here are some ways we can start doing so:
- Pass the RECLAIM Act and Keep the Black Lung Excise Tax Intact: Coal communities continue to feel the health effects of coal mining even as the jobs disappear, and we can’t let big companies get away with that. Cleaning up the abandoned mines will bring jobs and health benefits for people across Kentucky’s coal regions. The RECLAIM Act has been sitting on Mitch’s desk, and our communities need the $100 million it will provide Kentucky now.
In 2019, Kentucky mining families received more than $40 million in medical benefits and stipends from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that’s funded by the Black Lung Excise Tax. The tax will drop by half without Congressional action at the end of 2020, and Mitch refuses to do anything about it.
- Reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund: Reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands fund is critical for continued cleanup of former mined lands. With some coal companies going bankrupt, Kentuckians could be left with millions in abandoned mine cleanup to pay on their own as the Kentucky Department of Abandoned Mine Lands is drastically underfunded. The department depends entirely on federal funding to operate. We must reauthorize this important fund that helps clean up land and water in Western and Eastern Kentucky coalfields, while creating jobs to do so.
- Fully Fund the Appalachian Regional Commission: I want to make sure ARC has more funding than it ever has so it continues its critical outreach and investment in the people and places of Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky, where many entities depend on ARC grants to operate.
- Change Bankruptcy Provisions: Why are families not getting the money they deserve from coal companies? Because of Mitch. Our national bankruptcy laws say that when a big coal company goes bankrupt, Wall Street bankers go to the front of the line to collect their money. Workers go to the back and get whatever scraps are left, which is sometimes nothing. We have to change this now so that when more coal companies go bankrupt, their workers come first.
- Partner with Our Coal Miners and Families: We need to identify the types of work our rural communities want and can thrive on and then work as hard as possible to bring those jobs to Kentucky.
For years, Mitch has turned his back on the health and health care of rural communities, and as a result, we are losing too many people too young. In rural parts of Kentucky, people are significantly more likely to die from a number of causes, including injuries and heart disease, than people in non-rural parts of the state and across the country.
Our rural communities deserve high quality health care. Here’s how we can achieve that:
- Protect the Affordable Care Act: In 2009, 40% of adults with low incomes living in rural areas and small towns didn’t have health insurance in Kentucky. By 2016, that number had dropped to 13%, in large part because of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. Mitch, though, voted to repeal the ACA three times without a replacement, which would have left almost 500,000 Kentuckians without health care. We need to improve upon the ACA, not throw it out because of partisan politics.
- Safeguard Rural Hospitals: We also need to protect and help our rural hospitals in general by passing the bipartisan Rural Emergency Acute Care Hospital (REACH) Act. In Kentucky, 16 rural hospitals were already at risk of closing before the pandemic because of dire financial situations. Since the pandemic began, one hospital has closed, and thousands of rural healthcare workers have been furloughed or laid off. McConnell has done almost nothing to improve the situation and has voted to decrease Medicaid access, which most rural hospital patients rely on.
- Increase Funding for Community Health Centers: Community health centers provide primary, prenatal, and other important care to underserved populations, and more than half of them are in rural areas. By increasing funding for them, we can ensure more Kentuckians get the care they need, and communities can hire social workers and professionals from healthcare adjacent professions to create strong health communities with good nutrition programs and senior care services.
- Expand the Pipeline of Rural Health Care Providers: In Kentucky, 40% of the population lives in rural areas, but only 17% of primary care providers practice in rural areas. We have a significant shortage of valuable doctors for people who need them most. We will use a comprehensive approach to increase the number of rural individuals going to medical school or other training programs and returning or staying in rural communities to provide care, with a focus on primary care physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and other in-demand providers. Amy’s national service plan would allow doctors to pay off their debt if they served in a high-need community, and her proposal for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps could bring additional health care support to rural communities in Kentucky.
- Lower the Medicare Age: We need to ensure everyone who needs care in rural communities gets it. By lowering the Medicare age to 55, we can give families in rural communities more peace of mind that as they get older, their care will be affordable and high quality.
- Lower Prescription Drug Prices: Kentuckians spend on average more than $2,000 per year on prescription drugs. In rural Kentucky, these costs are a massive burden on families. We need to lower costs by allowing drug reimportation and permitting Medicare to negotiate prices.
- Address the Opioid Crisis: We need to increase funds for community-led efforts to prevent overdoses, which will require our leaders to hold Big Pharma companies accountable for flooding Kentucky with opioids. We must also expand the use of drug courts and stop resorting to incarceration as our primary way of handling drug-only criminal offenses.
We also need to ensure that the economy of rural Kentucky is driven by business owners and workers who live there, instead of big out-of-state corporations that Mitch has given handouts and tax breaks to for decades. To do that, we must:
- Expand Our Health Care Systems: The healthcare industry is the largest employer in rural Kentucky. By investing in rural hospitals we can provide economic opportunities and build healthier communities. For example, the Rockcastle County Regional Hospital created a specialization in long-term respiratory care, and it is now one of the best in the state. The hospital and its community are now growing as a result of their investment in this specialized care. We should be investing in more initiatives like this one.
- Make Use of Our Forests: We have a potential multi-billion dollar industry in sustainable forestry that would supply jobs, strengthen our economies, and help our environment. We need to do what we can to build it up.
- Encourage Tourism: Tourism can support local business, especially because when people stay overnight in a community, they will spend many times more money than if they just stopped in for the day. We should work with our rural communities to identify whether and how they can attract visitors to experience Kentucky’s great beauty.
- Support Small Businesses: Small, locally owned businesses are the backbone of communities in rural Kentucky. But they have been struggling in recent years, and most especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have not been able to keep their doors open and continue providing good-paying jobs with benefits and services to their community. We need to invest more in Main Streets across rural Kentucky, instead of providing more tax breaks to out-of-state or overseas corporations.
- Foster Entrepreneurship: We need to help foster a sense of entrepreneurship in our young people so they can feel like they can stay in their home communities if they want and build a good life for themselves and their future families. There needs to be more funding, tax breaks, and loan forgiveness for new and existing business owners who want to live and work in rural areas.
- Expand Apprenticeship Programs and Trade Schools: We need to scale up work-based learning programs through registered apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeship programs and other labor-management training programs. These training schools can lead to the types of well-paying jobs that build a better life for people and ensure businesses have the workers they need.
- Provide Needed Funding: One of the major challenges for our rural communities is that they are not given the financial support needed for the great initiatives they are creating. Expanded use of Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 plan will help fund needed infrastructure and community investments across rural Kentucky.
- Invest in a Diverse Energy Economy: By investing in a variety of energy sources, we can make our energy more efficient and cheaper for families, and we can create jobs in the process. Energy prices have been skyrocketing in recent years. Spending less on energy puts more money in people’s pockets and helps businesses keep their doors open and hire more employees. We can and must make sustainable energy more accessible with increased transparency for users and net-metering legislation that allows for and is not prohibitive for small scale solar. We can and should also invest in carbon capture technology.
Families are the backbones of our communities, and we need to do everything we can to help them thrive. As a mother and a woman of faith, it is unconscionable to me that in one of the richest nations on earth, there are families who don’t have access to clean water, struggle to put food on the table and are unable to find quality child care they can afford.
Here are some ways we can help our families feel secure:
- Revitalize Our Infrastructure: Between 2008 and 2019, water samples from Martin Countybreached the EPA’s Safe Water Drinking Act 50 times. In 2017, The Mountain Water District, which serves 16,700 homes in Pike County, lost nearly one out of every three gallons it produced through leaking lines and faulty meters. No parent should have to worry that their water is a danger to their child.
- Strive for Universal Broadband Access: Our state ranks 44th overall in broadband access, which is especially a problem in rural communities. In Knox County, almost 50% of homes lack internet access. We have to strive for every last home to have internet access so that our young people can learn as much as possible.
- Protect USPS: Our post offices are vital to our rural communities, especially because they deliver prescriptions to our elderly family members who otherwise would struggle to receive them. But in the last decade, Kentucky has lost 62 post offices, the most in the country. We have to reverse this trend and ensure our USPS office’s have the funding needed to keep delivering people’s prescriptions.
- Protect Pensions: Over 14% of Kentucky’s workers are state and local government workers, and in rural communities, this number is often higher. As a veteran, I know how important my pension is to my family’s security. Now more than ever, families deserve to have peace of mind about their futures, and so we need to protect the pensions of our workers during this crisis and afterwards. We must eliminate the Windfall Elimination Provision that prevents hardworking government employees from getting the full retirement benefits they deserve.
- Assist Our Child Care Centers and Workers: As a mom, I know the necessity of good, reliable, affordable child care. That’s why we need to immediately pass the Child Care Is Essential Act to ensure that our child care providers can make it through this crisis. We also must address the long-term shortage of child care offerings across Rural Kentucky by increasing funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which would provide assistance to more rural families who need child care.
- Create Universal Pre-K or Head Start: Currently only about 50% of Kentucky kids arrive at Kindergarten ready to succeed in school. This has far-reaching effects, well into high school, college and career. Creating universal pre-K wil not only help with child care burdens and shortages, but it will also ensure every young person has the foundation they need for a better future.
- Aid Our Rural Schools: We need to make sure our teachers can afford to teach in our rural communities and that our rural schools are fully staffed. We need to create teacher training and recruitment programs for rural schools, and we need to offer loan forgiveness for those who teach in and stay at rural schools.
- Support Our Electric Cooperatives: Roughly 1 million Kentuckians depend upon our electric cooperatives. We need to help them continue to serve our state. First, we need to allow our electric cooperatives to refinance their outstanding debt through Rural Utilities Service to reflect current interest rates, without penalty. Permitting refinancing at the current rates will help cooperatives use the savings to invest in their systems, increasing offerings and reliability with no increase in rates. Over time, we need to create and support programs that help provide cooperatives that are interested in offering broadband financing at a low cost or no cost do so.