Life under austerity

  • An elderly man waits as volunteers from the Harlan Community Action Agency help build him a wheelchair ramp as part of their annual day of service in the southeastern region of Kentucky.
  • A sign outside a gas station reads “God bless our coal miners” in Harlan, KY. More stringent EPA regulations and the availability of cheaper coal in other regions are blamed for the economic decline of the region, which wholly relies on coal for it’s livelihood.
  • A shop front in Cumberland, KY advertises HUD apartments for rent. The collapse of the coal industry has led to a period of steep economic decline in eastern Kentucky. Thousands of miners have been laid off in recent years with unemployment rates reaching as high as 18% in Harlan County.
  • A reconstructed coal mine with an animatronic figures at the Portal 31 Museum in Lynch, KY.  The museum is devoted to Kentucky’s once thriving coal industry.
  • An exhibit at the Portal 31 Museum devoted to the coal mining industry in Lynch, KY. A series of animatronic figures narrate the history of coal in the region.
  • One of the few local coal mines still in operation in Harlan county, KY.
  • A car stops by the side of the road to look at a tag sale in Harlan, KY.
  • Friendship Baptist Church Sunday services in Cawood, KY.
  • A young member of the Friendship Baptist Church congregation at Sunday services in Cawood, KY.
  • Kids wait in the bleachers as their parents rehearse in a community theater in Lynch, KY.  The play will be a series of vignettes of stories from the region that were passed down through the generations.
  • An intersection in the impoverished town of Hazard, eastern Kentucky where more than 30% of the population is living below the poverty line.
  • A teenager a the local Subway sandwich shop in Cumberland, KY.
  • ‘Homecoming’ meal at the Friendship Baptist Church after Sunday services in Cawood, KY.
  • A mannequin of country singer Loretta Lynn at The Kentucky Coal Museum in Lynch, KY. The third floor of the museum is dedicated to the life of country-music star and Kentucky native.
  • JROTC cadets outside the Harlan County High School before the Blessing of the Hunt, an event held by the Upper Cumberland Association of Baptists.  The free event gave away dozens of guns and other hunting supplies to the assembled crowd with a series of religiously themed speeches between the giveaways.
  • The marching band from the Harlan Independent School practices in the parking lot.
  • A young boy gets dressed in his football uniform in the parking lot at the Harlan Independent School.
  • Residents of Harlan sell some of their possessions along Route 119, eastern Kentucky.
  • A woman watches from a window in Lynch which was established in 1917 by the U.S. Coal and Coke Company (a subsidiary of U.S. Steel) as a company town to house workers at the company’s nearby coal mines. Since the 1960s the town’s population has declined as a result of the collapse of the mining industry.
  • Two men in electric wheelchairs on the road in Cumberland, KY.
  • Fishing in the river near Harlan, KY.
  • A coal mine in Harlan, KY. As of 2009, less than 1 percent of the total workforce (just 18,850 Kentuckians) were employed in the coal industry.
  • Axie Pollitte, a resident of Harlan, KY.
  • Quiet street scene at dusk in Harlan, KY.
  • Two men on the road at night in the town of Hazard in Perry County, KY.
  • Harlan’s deserted Main Street at night.
  • A young child waiting in the car at a gas station in Harlan, KY.
  • The Cash Express in Cumberland, KY.
  • A woman on a smoke break in Harlan, KY.



For more than a hundred years, coal anchored families to the mountain hollows of eastern Kentucky. But a dying mining industry, and government austerity, has left folks chasing any rumor, any scrap, any whiff of a job that’s still to be had.

The hurt is around every corner in places like Harlan, Ky., as the global market thumbed its nose at central Appalachian coal. The unemployment rate is as high as 18 percent.

And just when residents needed it most, Congress pared back the safety net that’s there to catch them. Federally funded programs that retrained miners, fed the poor and helped the elderly have been put on the chopping block thanks to sequestration cuts, budget fights and partisan politics. Left behind is a stricken landscape and a community struggling to stay together. 

Photographer Peter van Agtmael spent time in eastern Kentucky documenting the daily life of these struggling communities.

Read “Ain’t nothing here,” Suzy Khimm’s report from the struggling town.