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Somerset County's Declining Economy


Last month, a crowd gathered at the edge of an enormous hole in Pennsylvania. It was the entrance to a new coal mine.


President Trump showed support for coal by sending a video to the opening of the mine, which was planned before he took office.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm so proud of the fact that you're opening that mine today. I told you it was going to happen. God bless America.


MARTIN: The mining company plans to employ at least 70 people. This is a tiny bright spot for an industry that has lost thousands of jobs.

INSKEEP: It's modest news even for Somerset County, Pa., the kind of blue-collar Appalachian area that Trump pledged to help. That leads to a big question, which we face over the next two days. What will it take to bring economic opportunity to rural America? We start by driving near the mine.

The countryside is so lovely - rolling farmland marked here and there by a red barn or a white farmhouse or a bale of hay. There's an American flag on a front porch.

Somerset County, Pa., has a limestone courthouse where a statue of a Civil War soldier stands guard. Nearby, we parked at a building that said F.O.E. - Fraternal Order of Eagles. Their lodge is called an aerie, or nest.


INSKEEP: And it's burger night, as it is many Wednesday nights. Bit of a crowd here. Chelsea, the bartender, serves Old Milwaukee and Yuengling - $2 each for members only.

Is everybody in here a member of the Eagles?


INSKEEP: Including the women at the bar.

How are the burgers here?

ELAINE LATUCH: They're very good. Would you like one?

INSKEEP: Might have one a little bit later. I appreciate you asking.

MARY DENNING: With jalapenos on them. They're good...

INSKEEP: Oh, jalapenos - is that the way to have it?

DENNING: Yep, onion and jalapeno.

INSKEEP: How about you? Are you a jalapeno...

LATUCH: French fries with gravy on the side.

INSKEEP: Elaine Latuch and Mary Denning come here to socialize and put some money down on the house lottery.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On the Little Eagle, is there a number G903444. Winning number is number 600.


INSKEEP: It was not their lucky day.

DENNING: I won last week.

INSKEEP: How would you describe the community around here? What's Somerset like?

DENNING: Oh, we like it. We never left (laughter) our whole lives.

LATUCH: You know, it's a close-knit...

DENNING: Yeah. But our kids all leave. Well, I mean, some of our grandkids, I'm thinking, more so, you know?

LATUCH: Yeah, the majority of kids, I think, leave.

DENNING: It's - yeah, they can't make it here. There's nothing here for them.

LATUCH: Three of my kids have left - just because of the opportunity and whatever.

INSKEEP: Since World War II, as the national population more than doubled, Somerset's population declined. Factories that once made camping equipment closed. Coal mines that once employed thousands replaced men with machinery. Blue-collar jobs that remain include trucking. John Fay, who wears a yellow Fraternal Order of Eagles T-Shirt, hauls concrete for road construction.

What do you like about that work?

JOHN FAY: It's Monday through Friday, 7-5.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

FAY: Normal hours.

INSKEEP: Although he knows companies have been testing self-driving trucks. Just as the mines employ fewer people these days, the trucking workforce could someday decline.

FAY: I think I'm like the last of Mohicans. I've been doing this for - I've been driving trucks for almost 25 years. So...

INSKEEP: So maybe in 25 more years, there's not going to be very many more people like you.

FAY: We might be the Jetsons and flying our cars to work.

INSKEEP: When the economy changes, Somerset County residents have to scramble. The economic survivors include a man sipping a Michelob at a table in the back.

So your T-shirt says, I've got a monkey on my back (laughter). There's an actual monkey on the back there.

ERNEST SHAULIS: And that's - my granddaughter got that for me.

INSKEEP: I just wondered if you feel that way some days.

SHAULIS: Some days, some days.

INSKEEP: Ernest Shaulis wears glasses and a beard that's gone gray. He's been a coal miner for 33 years.

SHAULIS: This is my ninth mine.

INSKEEP: Your ninth mine.

SHAULIS: Ninth mine.


He's done many jobs at those mines.

SHAULIS: Right now, I'm the outside man.

INSKEEP: What does that mean?

SHAULIS: I'm a laborer, janitor, loader operator - whatever's needed outside.

INSKEEP: Meaning you don't go down the hole.

SHAULIS: Not anymore.

INSKEEP: A few years ago, he was laid off from a job underground. He took the opportunity to be retrained on the above-ground machinery, even though it cost him.

SHAULIS: The underground miners are paid good. The outside guys are - don't get paid so good. But...

INSKEEP: Did you take a pay cut to come up then?

SHAULIS: Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: You must have wanted to get out of that hole.

SHAULIS: After 30-something years, yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: He had to spend those years crawling in tunnels less than 4 feet high. Now, an underground miner's pay can reach more than $100,000 per year with overtime, money that Shaulis used to raise four kids.

SHAULIS: Three sons and a daughter.

INSKEEP: And what do they do for a living?

SHAULIS: One's - the daughter's the nurse. One works at a restaurant, the son. And one's a security guard. And the other one's in state prison.

INSKEEP: Sorry to have to ask, but do you mean as a guest of the state or working?

SHAULIS: I mean as a guest - for the rest of his life.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. I'm sorry to hear that.

SHAULIS: It was his doings. Dope - tried to teach him better, but it happened.

INSKEEP: It was a drug-related killing.

SHAULIS: It was a drug-related killing. He was working for a gentleman, and he figured the gentleman was cheating him. And he was high on meth, and he had a cast on his hand. He hit the old gentleman one time - killed him.

INSKEEP: We met 30 people in Somerset County and asked about the community's concerns. People brought up drugs again and again, which they see as a symptom of a troubled area. People in this conservative county would like to see change. And in November's election, Donald Trump won 77 percent of the vote around here.


SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Good evening, I'm Savannah Guthrie, in for Lester. Tonight, emergency...

INSKEEP: And Ernest Shaulis regularly sees President Trump on the TV screen over the bar.

Have you been following the national news...


INSKEEP: ...President Trump, Congress?


INSKEEP: You think they're doing anything that's going to help anybody here?

SHAULIS: I don't know. I hate to bad-mouth Mr. Trump because right now he's getting the credit for bringing coal back.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you started by saying, I hate to bad-mouth Mr. Trump, which makes it sound like maybe you'd kind of like to bad-mouth him a little bit.

SHAULIS: I would. You know, there's a lot of things around, like, he could help out better with, like his health care thing that he's trying to get through.

INSKEEP: He doubts the Republican health care bill is going to help people in his aging community, where people do need a lot of care.

MARTIN: So it's fascinating to hear him talk, Steve. And it makes me wonder if Trump voters are still with him.

INSKEEP: In a word, yes. They are still with the president, giving him a chance. Many say he's been unfairly attacked. But they also have really low expectations - not really looking for an economic miracle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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