WOODSFIELD, Ohio — Dennis Beckett wasn't even sure he wanted to cash his stimulus check, especially after he received a letter from President Biden announcing its arrival. Beckett, a retired pipe fitter, owns 25 firearms and staunchly opposes the president's call for restrictions on high-capacity magazines.
But even as the stimulus makes his renovation possible, Beckett also blames it for the rising cost of the construction materials he needs. “Ever since January 20th, everything has shot up,” Beckett said, referring to the day Biden was inaugurated. “Just look at gas — it’s $3 a gallon, when it had been $1.79.”
Beckett’s ambivalence is echoed across Monroe County, made up of small towns and family farms tucked in the Appalachian region of southeastern Ohio.
In this impoverished pocket of the United States, the most recent round of stimulus payments — $1,400 for Americans who earn up to $75,000 — was the difference between getting a medical treatment and not, enrolling a child in college and not. But political divisions are deep here, and Trump voters, who make up the great majority of residents, are blaming the payments for a range of ills.
Some here say the Biden stimulus checks are keeping people from work, fueling a sense that the undeserving are exploiting the system. As the price of basic goods climbs, others worry that the stimulus will lead to runaway inflation on wood, cars, even milk.
“My God-honest opinion was at first that it was nice that the government was helping people,” said Brad Jeffries, 50, a truck driver who was laid off for most of last year and used the stimulus to pay off bills. “But since we got that, everything has went up, so how is that helping people out?”
This former Democratic stronghold has shifted right recently, and many residents now refer to the area as “Trump country.” In 2020, President Donald Trump received an average of 72 percent of the vote in the 420 counties covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a joint federal-state agency that steers resources to a 13-state region.
Biden has promised to win some of those voters back with economic incentives like the stimulus and the expanded child tax credit program, which will begin monthly payments to parents in mid-July of $350 for each child younger than 6, and $250 for each child between ages 6 and 17.
A Washington Post analysis estimates that more than 90 percent of Trump voters in Monroe County received stimulus checks, one of the highest rates in the region.
“The president understands when we raise the quality of life and achievement of rural America, we improve the quality of life for all Americans,” said Gayle Manchin, whom Biden appointed co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission this spring.
But many of Monroe County’s Trump supporters don’t see it that way. Danny Long, a 41-year-old truck driver, was unemployed for much of last year and was behind on rent and utility bills.
The stimulus helped him catch up. But he credits Republicans for the checks, noting that Americans also received two stimulus payments during the last year of Trump’s presidency. “Biden didn’t do this,” Long said. “Trump did.”
'It definitely helped me out'
Monroe County was once home to plentiful jobs in the coal, plastics and metals industries. But in recent years, the area has been battered by high unemployment. Today, 1 in 7 residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some bought lawn mowers or tractors. Many paid down debt, or used the money to finally make the hour-long trip to the doctor or dentist, a drive that takes them past hayfields and barns emblazoned with giant “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” ads.
One man in Sardis, who asked to be identified by only his first name, Edward, has been surviving on Social Security disability payments for 34 years. He suffered a brain injury and a collapsed eardrum when a former hunting buddy beat him in the head with brass knuckles during an alcohol-fueled dispute.
About half of Edward’s $500-a-month disability check goes to utility bills and rent for his government-subsidized one-bedroom apartment.
To get by, Edward, 59, mows his neighbors’ lawns in exchange “for free beer, a carton of cigarettes or a few dollars.” Last month, Edward used his stimulus check to buy new work boots, a bicycle, gasoline for his lawn mower and a weed eater in hopes of broadening his business.
“So, it definitely helped me out,” said Edward, who did not vote in the last election but generally liked Trump’s policies.
But like others, Edward also blames the stimulus for the rising price of essentials.
“Everyone keeps telling me we are going to pay this money back somehow, and I am already starting to see it with the price of gas, and the price of tomatoes,” he said. “I wonder if we are going to end up even worse off than before we got it.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that consumer prices nationwide rose by 5 percent in May compared with a year earlier, the largest increase since 2008. Prices for household furnishings and services increased 1.3 percent in May, their largest monthly increase since January 1976.
Many residents here also say the payments have led to a labor shortage. Although Monroe County has a 7 percent unemployment rate, many store owners and managers here and across the Ohio River in West Virginia say they have been struggling to find workers.
Jeffries, for example, said his daughter and her husband quit their jobs in the spring “when they got IRS [tax refunds] and then their stimulus on top of that.”
“They haven’t worked in two months,” said Jeffries, who works in the natural gas extraction industry. “I love her to death, but she is living off the system as bad as anyone else.”
At Marv’s Place diner in Sardis, where residents gather for hearty meals including deep-fried green beans and $12.25 pot roast dinners, Carmella Ivey said the stimulus payment arrived at just the right time.
Ivey, a manager at Marv’s, used her check to help pay her daughter’s entry fees at West Virginia University, where she will become one of the first members of her family to go to college.
But Ivey also now finds herself having to work longer hours because the diner is having trouble finding staff. “People are extremely thankful [for the stimulus] and they needed it,” Ivey said. “But people do need to get back to work.”
'We are just trying to burn money'
The stimulus boosted Americans’ household wealth to a record $136.9 trillion in the spring, according to the Federal Reserve.And Biden argues that the most recent jobs report — the U.S. economy added 850,000 jobs in June — is a sign that his strategy of “growing the economy from the bottom up” is working.
But local business owners are divided over whether the payments have helped the local economy.
At Monroe Carpet and Flooring in Woodsfield, co-owner Robin Langsdorf said there has been an uptick in business, though it has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“These women are coming in and getting their kitchens done or new carpets, and I know that is probably from their stimulus,” said Langsdorf, 61, who used her most recent check to buy some household items.
But Unlimited Autos, which sells used cars, hasn’t seen the same bump, according to manager Carl Harper.
Harper said sales plummeted by more than 70 percent at the height of the pandemic and still haven’t fully rebounded. Instead of buying cars, many Monroe residents used their stimulus to purchase all-terrain vehicles, he said.
“A lot of them just blew it on foolishness,” Harper said. “A lot of people on welfare just took the stimulus and blew it on motorbikes.”
Monroe County Commissioner Mick Schumacher, a Republican, is also skeptical that the federal stimulus will have a lasting impact.
“I think we are just trying to burn money, and raise inflation, and I think the whole thing is crazy,” Schumacher said. “Give the guy who is working a break rather than the guy who is sitting on his hind end a handout.”
But Schumacher is pushing for federal dollars to flow into his county in other ways, highlighting how limited fiscal conservatism actually remains in this region.
Biden’s stimulus measure provided direct aid to local governments, including $5.3 billion to the Appalachian region. Monroe County is slated to get $2.6 million over the next two years.
Schumacher said his county needs even more federal assistance, including help financing a new $34 million sewage treatment project so waste no longer seeps into the Ohio River. He argues that grant money provides more accountability and that officials can make sure it goes to a good cause.
“That is not the case with free money” from stimulus checks, Schumacher said.
'A little bit of credit'
Monroe County has strong historical ties both to labor unions and the Democratic Party. Voters here supported Democratic presidential candidates in all but two elections from 1960 to 2008, when Barack Obama carried the county with 53 percent of the vote.
But like many rural counties in recent years, the area has surged right.
In the Trump era, amid a steady decline in union jobs and a booming natural gas industry, that trend accelerated. Trump received 76 percent of the vote here last year.
During the campaign, Biden argued that his populist policies would appeal to the White working-class voters who’ve fled the party.
But in Monroe County, the wounds of the 2020 election remain visible, as Trump flags and “Do you miss me yet” banners featuring the former president’s face continue to line highways.
Manchin, who is married to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), said the Biden administration’s efforts to boost the Appalachian region will pay off with residents in the long term. She noted that Biden’s proposed budget includes a record $235 million for economic and community programs implemented by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan to fund infrastructure repairs also includes $1 billion to help distressed coal communities, she noted.
“There is certainly going to be an influx of money coming into areas where there hasn’t been that before,” she said. “And I think people will begin to see proof of that as these communities and families begin to see these improvements in their quality of life. . . . This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
Using data from L2, a national voter file vendor, The Post estimates that nearly 6.5 million out of the 7.5 million Trump voters in the Appalachia region were eligible to receive a stimulus check.
The proportion of Trump voters who received the money was especially high in western Kentucky and central Mississippi.
But the flow of money into Appalachia doesn’t seem to have changed many hearts and minds. When Long, the Monroe County truck driver, received his $1,400 stimulus check in the spring, he started thinking of all the things he would spend it on, even before he cashed it.
He could catch up on the rent for the three-bedroom house he shares with his girlfriend, and his three children needed new clothes and shoes.
And Long, who has diabetes, can always use some extra cash to help pay prescription and medical bills that can reach several hundred dollars a month.
“It was nice that the government did something to help us,” Long said.
But he stressed that the stimulus didn’t change his negative impression of Biden. “The only thing Biden should get credit for is hundreds of dead people voting for his a--,” he said, repeating a false claim that fraudulent votes played a role in Biden’s victory last year.
Jean Young, 76, shares Long’s antipathy toward Biden.
Young is a retiree who lives on a $530-a-month Social Security check and is the matriarch of an extended family of “die-hard” Trump supporters. Still angered over the election result, Young said she will probably never fully trust Biden.
But Young is willing to give Biden credit for helping real people out of difficult times.
“You are not hearing about all the people who it helps,” said Young, who plans to use the money for a family vacation to Florida. “You often hear about the people who are homeless and living in their cars. But what you don’t hear is all the stories of people who have paid their rent because of” the stimulus checks.
“And if you have to give Joe Biden credit for that, I guess he gets a little bit of credit for that,” said Young. “Begrudgingly.”