Friday, August 7, 2015

Southern West Virginia is on life support ...

One of the defining characteristics of West Virginia is coal.  The extraction of our version of black gold created an economic center for the state.  An unbelievable amount of jobs and commerce connect to coal mining.  Mining requires shipment through river, rails, and roadways.  The transportation of coal provides numerous jobs, which necessitates a large number service industries to provide for the needs and consumer goods.  The state has profited greatly from coal production despite peaks and valleys in the business.
 
Now, coal is on the way out.  People of West Virginia point towards government regulation from the Obama administration as the primary cause for coal's decline.  There's far more to the downfall of coal than the current president.  Coal miners have been victimized by mechanization, changes in demand for coal, and ultimately new forms of energy production.  
The loss of coal as a staple for economic development in West Virginia is a problem for numerous counties, and changes must be made not only to ensure the citizens here can prosper, but to prevent the onset of widespread poverty.
 
Mining was once dependent upon having a significant number of manpower to extract coal.  Numerous people were required to create timber pieces and place them to stabilize mine.  Prior to 1950, coal was loaded almost entirely by hand.  Drills worked faster.  Not even John Henry could keep pace.  So, what happened to the production levels of coal?  They skyrocketed.  
In 1900, the United States produced approximately 200 million tons of coal.  By 1960, that number had doubled to 400 million tons.  The peak production of nearly 1.2 billion tons was reached circa 2010. 
For those same years, the mining industry has seen a significant loss in jobs.  
In 1900, the number of miners employed was approximately 450,000.  In 1960, that number shrunk to 188,000.  And in 2010, that number had dwindled to about 80,000.  Mines have been producing more coal with less human labor.
 
Of course, the industrialization of the coal industry isn't the only reason for loss of jobs.  The development of other forms of energy has changed the playing field.  Coal once was responsible for providing a majority of the nation's electricity.  Since the inception of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s, the nation has found different forms of generating electricity, including nuclear, solar and wind power, and more recently, natural gas.  These forms of energy continue to eat into coal's market share for the nation's electricity.  As of 2014, coal provided 40% of the nation's electricity, but if current trends continue, forecasts call for the number to drop to approximately 25% by the year 2030.
 
The shrinking demand for coal is not only an American issue.  The coal industry actually resurfaced in the mid-1990s due to a higher worldwide demand for coal, particularly in China.  But even the Chinese now have curtailed their use of coal because of the environmental impact.
 
Coal mining and its use as an energy source isn't going to disappear.  However, West Virginians must confront the fact that these problems, in combination with more restrictive policies adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are not going to improve.  The state has ignored a hard truth for far too long:  coal just ain't what it used to be.
 
So, what now?  How does West Virginia cope and how do we make up for lost economic opportunity?  The sense is that so many citizens here are going through the stages of grief over the loss of coal — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  No, that's not a joke.  From what I can see, most people connected with the coal industry seem to be somewhere in the first two stages.  It's not easy to move on from a line of work that's become not just a means of supporting a family, but a part of cultural and personal identity.  What does a coal miner do when his job is made obsolete or unworkable?
 
The great challenge of the next decade (or two) will be to transition the coal workforce into other economic opportunities and also stabilize regions of the state that have been financially reliant on coal for the last century. 
The state of West Virginia and the federal government already have a few options in place to offset losses in the mining industry.  West Virginia was one of a few states awarded millions of dollars dedicated towards training laid off miners.  The money will be dedicated towards technical training programs that require similar skills and attributes as mining.  
Some of the training received under these grants has allowed many men and women to successfully transition from the coal industry to other energy sectors, including the shale boom in the northern part of the state.  Others have trained in areas such as welding, diesel mechanics, and electrical work. While many of the miners are taking advantage of such opportunities, these types of jobs have forced people to relocate away from their homes.  Also, most of the jobs they now perform don't pay nearly as well as the mines.  Can you blame them for being frustrated?
 
I would be angry if my chosen profession was slowly be phased out, in part due to the government, and then they provided me with a job that paid significantly less money.  I love working in education, and I'm certain many of these people loved working as a miner.
 
It's also important to realize the level of devastation that takes root when the only major economic opportunities of an area leave.  It would be too easy to examine the plight of McDowell County, where mining jobs and population have been shrinking since the 1950s, while poverty and drug abuse are soaring.  The lack of opportunity and problems there have been highlighted in some of the nation's most prominent newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
 
Logan, Boone, Mingo, and Wayne counties are the most recent victims of the coal decline.  The ripple effect in these counties has already begun.  Severance taxes from the coal mining industry have long been a major source of revenue for these counties (this tax provides the county with 5% of the gross value of coal mined).  The shutdown of mines has created a gaping hole in many county budgets, leaving significantly less money for the necessary upkeep of infrastructure and valuable government services, such as police protection.
 
These four counties are experiencing loss in funding, which means government has more difficulty providing for their citizens.  Dilapidated infrastructure, less government services, and decreased economic opportunities will only decrease the population.  The shutdown of mines also bleeds over into the service industries.  An exodus from these counties also depletes the tax base, causing an even greater loss of revenue.  The housing market in these areas already suffers, and when people put their homes up for sale in these areas, no one will be able to afford them, or have reason to purchase them.
 
The rest of Southern West Virginia is in danger of becoming like McDowell County.  Here's some significant data to consider, comparing these four counties to the rest of West Virginia and McDowell:
 

Statistics were taken from U.S. Census at www.census.gov


The poverty rates of these four counties already exceed the state average.  Population decreases (reflecting 2010-2014) are alarming.  High school and college degrees are in short supply by comparison.  The value of homes in these counties are 20% below the state average and incomes already lag behind.  How much worse can the situation become?  Look at the far right column and that is a good indicator of what happens when coal leaves a region and nothing replaces it.
 
What does the state need to do to avoid such a fate for Southern West Virginia?  Here are some suggestions.
 
  • Drawing manufacturing or technology jobs to rural West Virginia is a challenge.  To bring in business, we should offer greatly reduced corporate tax rates for an extended amount of time, provided that a business promises to keep their facilities in the region beyond the tax break time frame.   
With land being fairly cheap in these areas, why not recruit businesses to come?   In many of these southern counties, access exists to waterways, railroads, interstate highways, and air traffic in Charleston and Huntington.
  • Develop specific programs that give students loans for either college or vocational training.  If these students agree to work in a designated county for a given amount of time, their loans would be forgiven, based upon the amount of time they work in one of these poverty stricken counties.  
  • Incorporate computer programming into public school curriculums. Though we would all like to see manufacturing jobs return in large quantities, we should face the reality that not all of them will come back.  If the state starts mandating computer programming, students would develop a skill throughout school that will benefit them personally, and create a pool of potential employees for technical jobs.   
  • Solicit help from businesses within West Virginia.  If businesses would commit a certain percentage of their profits to an investment into their community, imagine what might happen.  If businesses could even offer their services.  One of the greatest needs is to demolish condemned houses and buildings in communities.  Government grant money can't keep up with the need to eliminate these eyesores, which turn into hazards and potential criminal hotspots. What if construction companies and contractors volunteered to demolish one building every six months for free?  
Smaller businesses might struggle to meet the demands, and that's okay. But there are enough franchises and corporate entities in the area that could help absorb the costs.  Walmart would be an ideal corporation to approach, considering they are the largest private employer in the state.  Such philanthropic efforts would benefit corporations since these places are their workforce and customer base. 
  • Recruit churches and local organizations to volunteer their time.  Often, people are more apt to give money rather than time.  West Virginia needs people to give of their time, expertise, and resources.  Each of us should be asking, "How can I help?"  
These groups should reach out to the local schools and work with children to help them plan ahead for the future, and encourage them to be part of the community.  After school activities. Community cleanups.  Town fairs. Developing a sense of community pride.
  • Open up teaching opportunities to those who have a four year college degree in a particular field for counties with a designated need.  As someone with a background that includes a degree in education, I'm not one to normally advocate for such a measure, but these rural counties are absolutely desperate for teachers with the adequate knowledge base.
  
I'm aware that many other solutions and ideas could be out there, but West Virginia needs to act in a drastic fashion or a wide swath of counties will be looking more like McDowell County, which is the poorest in the nation.  
 
Additionally, McDowell County has higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and lack of physical activity than the state's average.  An even more frightening trend is the increase in drug abuse, both from prescription drugs and illegal narcotics.  This county also has increased rates of alcohol abuse and incidents of driving while under the influence.  
 
McDowell County will be the future of Southern West Virginia if we do not act immediately and decisively and this can't happen.  


  




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