Into the mountains and across the state line to West Virginia, highway signs tout one county after another as "A Certified Business Location." Ten miles off the interstate, down a twisting two-lane road, haircutter Brian Cooper settles into his own red leatherette barber chair in downtown Hinton, having seen his last customer of the day, though its just 3:45 p.m.
Cooper, 33, has a unique perspective on the economy of this faded railroad stop in one of the state's poorest counties, which hugs a steep hillside along the New River. He left town for college, taught school for 10 years before deciding it wasn't the right fit, and decided to retool with a trade. The switch might not have been possible without government assistance. He took out a $10,000 federal student loan to pay for barber school and while he was out of work, applied for government assistance to help cover food costs. He's self-supporting now, running his own business thanks to a chair offered by a senior barber. But that doesn't mean it's easy.
"Can you imagine paying $8 for a haircut? That's telling you the kind of economy that's here," he says.
But Cooper, whose shop sits across the street from the local office of the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program, says that while he sees the economic divide widening, he's doubtful about government programs that try to remedy it. Often it seems there's more incentive for the unemployed to work the system, rather than go to work for minimum wage, he says.
"It's harder for the middle class to get ahead," he says. "I just don't feel like the opportunities are out there for people. There are lot of ideals and theories, but I don't think they're put into practice very well. ... The hardest workers are the ones paying for everybody else."