NEW YORK– Donna Coomer raised three children on a minimum-wage job and a lot of prayer.
She thanks God daily that President Trump was elected. Her message to him is simple: Bring back jobs and raise the minimum wage.
“Have you ever tried to live on $7.25 an hour?” Coomer asks. “It was horrible.”
Today Coomer, 52, is a grandmother who manages a Valero gas station in Beattyville, Kentucky. It’s a small, homey town that earned the unfortunate distinction of being America’s “poorest white town” a few years ago.
As a manager, Coomer now earns a bit above the minimum wage. But the rest of her employees are still paid $7.25 an hour. America’s federal minimum wage hasn’t gone up since 2009, although many states and cities have hiked the wage on their own. Kentucky is not one of those states.
Coomer can feel the pain of the young moms that she employs.
One of them is Melissa Allen, 34. The circles under her eyes speak volumes about her stress. Allen works two jobs — as a cashier at the Valero station and cleaning tourist cabins in the rolling Kentucky hills. Both jobs pay minimum wage.
“I’ve lived in poverty my entire life,” Allen, breaking into tears, tells CNNMoney. “There’s really no hope.”
Like many, Allen didn’t want life to turn out this way. She had what she calls a “decent job” sewing firefighter uniforms at a company called Lion Apparel. But that factory in Beattyville closed. The company offered her a spot at a factory 45 miles away in West Liberty, but she was about to give birth and couldn’t make the hour-long commute each way.
Her son Hayden, now 5, is the only thing that keeps her going.
Despite working two jobs — over 50 hours a week — she still qualifies for about $100 a month in food stamps because her take-home pay is so low. Allen struggles to pay her bills and has had her water and electric shut off at times.
“I don’t understand why the minimum wage here can’t be raised. I don’t get that,” she says, wiping her eyes.
Trump voters who want to see minimum wage raised
Coomer, Allen’s boss, is a big fan of Trump’s. She voted for President Obama but says she was “really disappointed” by him. The unemployment rate in Lee County, Kentucky was 10.9% when Obama took office. Today it’s lower, 7.2%, but still far above the national average (4.8%).
If anybody can bring the jobs back to the Appalachia region of Kentucky, Coomer believes it’s Trump. Allen isn’t as optimistic.
“I hope it gets better. I really do, but I just don’t want to live on false hope,” she says, gazing out at the town that is a shadow of its formal glory days as a coal, oil and tobacco hub.
Lee County, where Beattyville is located, went overwhelmingly (81%) for Trump. Around town, there are frequent sightings of men wearing red “Trump” or “Make America Great Again” hats. During the campaign, Trump was all over the place on his minimum wage views. At one point he said it was “too high,” then he said he would support raising it to $10 an hour.
Even in this red Kentucky enclave, many Trump voters here want to see the minimum wage raised.
“It’s cheaper to live here than probably most places in the country. But you can’t live on $7.25,” says Beattyville Mayor John Smith, a staunch Republican and Trump supporter.
Smith thinks it would be a huge benefit to the people of his town if Trump and Congress (or Kentucky state politicians) raised the minimum wage “up to $9 or $10 an hour.”
Polls show the vast majority of Americas are like Smith. They favor raising the minimum wage somewhat, although not to $15 an hour.
About 400 miles north of Beattyville lies Detroit, Michigan. The state went for Trump by 10,704 votes, largely thanks to a lot of struggling workers like Peggy Stewart.
‘I feel like somebody again’
“I wouldn’t trade my job for nothing right now,” Stewart told CNNMoney, at a cafe outside Detroit. “I’m working and I feel like somebody again.”
Stewart, now 62, grew up in the foster care system in Detroit. Her family was broken up. She doesn’t even know where her siblings are.
“It took a lot of strength to be able to be alive and say this today. I thank God, because I had no one,” says Stewart.
Stewart has worked for as long as she can remember, often two or three jobs at a time to raise her kids. She was laid off because of health issues in her late 50s. Finding another job was a Herculean task. A corporate security company finally hired her a few months ago at $9 an hour, barely above Michigan’s minimum wage of $8.90.
She actually worked for the same company in her 50s, when they paid her about $11 an hour.
She and her husband, Jim, still glance at each other with the kind of love and trust in their eyes that most people only dream of. Jim works the overnight shift. Because of their work schedules, they sometimes only spend time with each other when Jim drives Peggy to her shift.
“There’s going to be days it just plain, excuse my language, sucks to be you,” says Jim, who went through a long stretch of unemployment during the Great Recession when the family had to eat at food banks, before finally landing his current job at Ford.
Peggy voted for Trump and Jim voted libertarian. She says she “hopes it’s not the biggest mistake of my life,” but she felt like no one else had a plan to help working people.
The Stewarts pray Trump will raise wages, including the minimum wage. They don’t think it should go to $15 because that deters people from getting skills to better themselves, but $9.30 or so could make a difference.
“Mr. Trump, please take care of us. We’re looking to you,” she says.
By Heather Long
CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Haley Draznin, Jeff Simon, Richa Naik and Logan Whiteside contributed to this report.