BEATTYVILLE, Kentucky — Donald Trump is already a hero to many in eastern Kentucky.
“I voted for Trump 100 percent,” says Barbara Puckett, a 55-year-old mom, who lives in the small and friendly town of Beattyville. “It’s the most hopeful I’ve been in a long time now that he’s in there.”
Trump won 81 percent of the vote in Beattyville. People here love that Trump doesn’t “sugarcoat” anything. They feel he understands them, even though he’s a billionaire.
“Donald Trump’s got all the money he’ll ever need,” says Steve Mays, judge-executive for the county and life-long Beattyville resident. The 49-year-old says he’s never been more excited about a president than he is now. “Trump will be a president for the common man.”
What Trump will do for the little guy is on everyone’s minds in Beattyville. The town earned the unfortunate distinction of being the “poorest white town in America” from 2008 to 2012. Depending on which metric you look at, it still ranks among the most impoverished in the country.
“This whole area’s been neglected,” laments Mays, who hopes Trump will visit the region. He wouldn’t be the first president to stop by. Beattyville isn’t far from the dilapidated cabin where President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964. Locals feel the area has been in a “slow decay” ever since.
Beattyville residents want jobs, especially ones that pay more than the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. They think if anyone can bring jobs back, it’s Trump.
Hope Trump will bring the jobs
“If you got a job here in Beattyville, you’re lucky,” says Amber Hayes, a bubbly 25-year-old mom of two, who also voted for Trump. She works at the county courthouse, but is paid by the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program (K-TAP), a form of welfare.
Coal, oil and tobacco made Beattyville a boom town in the 1800s and much of the 1900s. Locals like to bring up the fact that Lee County — where Beattyville is located — was the No. 1 oil-producing county east of the Mississippi at one time.
“Growing up in the ’70s? Yeah, this was the place to be,” says Chuck Caudhill, the general manager of the local paper, The Beattyville Enterprise. He calls the town the “gem of eastern Kentucky.”
Today, the town is a ghost of its former self. The vast majority of Beattyville residents get some form of government aid — 57% of households receive food stamps and 58% get disability payments from Social Security.
“I hope [Trump] don’t take the benefits away, but at the same time, I think that once more jobs come in a lot of people won’t need the benefits,” says Hayes, who currently receives about $500 a month from government assistance. She’s also on Obamacare.
Time for a coal revival?
The coal and oil jobs are almost all gone, but already there’s buzz Trump is reviving the industry.
Donna Coomer is the manager of a busy Valero gas station in the heart of Beattyville. She knows the names of most people who come in and makes small-town chatter with folks. Mere days after Trump’s inauguration, she heard coal trucks were rumbling again.
“Someone told me this morning that in eastern Kentucky the coal trucks are already out and about,” Coomer told CNNMoney, beaming. She voted for Obama but feels he was just a good talker who did little for Kentucky. Trump got her vote this time. She’s praying for the new president.
It will be hard for Trump to revive the coal jobs, even if he does scale back environmental regulations on the industry. Top coal executive Robert Murray recently told CNNMoney coal employment “can’t be brought back to where it was before the election of Barack Obama.”
After the energy jobs evaporated, Beattyville was kept alive by a private prison and a clothing factory, Lion Apparel, that made firefighter suits. Then those jobs went away during President Obama’s tenure.
All that’s left are a few grocery stores, gas stations and small businesses. And drugs.
A town struggling with drug addition
Rugged explorer Daniel Boone made this part of Kentucky famous in the late 1700s around the time of the Revolutionary War. The rolling hills and forests are still as picturesque as when Boone found them. Rock climbers come from all over the world to tackle the area’s peaks and natural bridges.
But today it’s also easy to come by heroin and cocaine in Kentucky’s hills. Almost every family CNNMoney met in Beattyville had been impacted by drugs.
Puckett and her husband are currently raising a great niece and nephew because their biological parents are drug addicts. The situation is so common in Beattyville that the local elementary school runs a support group for grandparents raising grandkids.
Caudhill estimates that 40 percent of kids in the area don’t live with their birth parents because of drugs.
“We need help. Eastern Kentucky is beautiful, but it needs help,” says Patricia “Trish” Cole. Her son died of an overdose when he was 27. Pictures of him are all around her living room. She’s normally quick to smile, but she gets choked up when his named is mentioned. She has a tattoo on her chest that reads: “Can’t keep your arms around a memory.”
Cole saves lives as an EMT for the local ambulance company. She estimates 80 percent of the ambulance runs she makes now are for drug-related issues. The day after her son died, she had to go get a young man who overdosed out of a closet.
Cole is one of the few people in town who voted for Hillary Clinton. She’s skeptical a billionaire will remember her people, but she’s willing to “give him a chance.”
Is a ‘Trump Turnaround’ possible?
Harold Shouse thinks about the new president every morning around 4:30am. That’s when he and dozens of others in Beattyville stop at the gas station for a coffee before driving an hour or more to work in Winchester or Lexington where there are more jobs.
Shouse has worked construction all of his life. He was a mason for the county government in Beattyville for about a decade but never got paid more than $11.25 an hour.
“Most people who live in this area are in same shape,” Shouse, a Trump supporter, says.
Shouse drives far for a $32-an-hour wage, but he wished there were decent jobs closer to his beloved hills. He and his wife bought a cedar cabin on top of a hill. They raised three daughters there and seven dogs. He’s a big fan of Trump’s idea to improve roads and bridges. If Trump does that, he thinks more businesses will come.
“We’re an hour from the closest interstate,” says Cole, the EMT who is also out on the roads daily. “The roads here are bad. We have two lane roads.”
The internet is another problem. Cell reception is hit or miss, and many homes and schools only got decent internet access in the past year or two. The local government is trying to find people jobs they can do at home on computers, but that requires reliable internet.
People in Beattyville hear about the low 4.8% unemployment rate in America, but they don’t see jobs returning in their town.
Trump has promised to create 25 million jobs, the most of any president. Experts say that will be nearly impossible to do nationally. But there are even more challenges to bringing jobs back to places like eastern Kentucky, which struggle with drugs, a remote location and many families on government aid.
Beattyville’s best hope
From the outside, it’s easy to wonder why people in Beattyville don’t just move somewhere else.
But out of all the people CNNMoney met in Beattyville, only one wanted to leave. The rest are drawn to the beauty of the place and the friendly community.
“I’m country to the core,” laughs Puckett. He husband of 39 years nods beside her.
Judge executive Mays puts it this way: “We’re perceived as a hillbilly, backwoods, all this and that. But we’re a good people.”
If there were simple solutions for eastern Kentucky’s economy, they probably would have been done already. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn helped build Habitat for Humanity homes in Beattyville in the late 1980s. It was another small effort that has helped, but not fundamentally changed, the region.
President Trump talks about substantial change. That’s what has people in America’s poorest white town fired up.
“I believe he wants to take care of us, the little people,” says Coomer, the gas station manager. “I think he’s going to quit giving money to all these other countries and take care of America. I truly do.”