Appalachia Needs Build Back Better, the Climate Infrastructure, Jobs and Workforce Support Package 

By Stephen Herzenberg 

Stephen Herzenberg is Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center

For more than a century, Appalachia has been exploited by absentee corporations in the extractive industries, leaving our communities impoverished, our workers and neighbors sick, and our lands damaged. The BBB climate infrastructure, jobs, and workforce support package  will create good jobs in the region while building sustainable local wealth.

BBB will bring much-needed federal resources into the region, revive the Civilian Conservation Corp and repair damage to our landscape, redevelop shuttered coal plants into environmentally-friendly industrial parks, and make Appalachia a hub for manufacturing products like battery technology, electric vehicles, and bioplastics. 

The benefits of Build Back Better start with jobs

The nation and our region still need a lot more jobs to recover fully from the pandemic recession. In October 2021, West Virginia, for example, remained 27,400 jobs short of the number in February 2020, before the pandemic. (In November 2021, the nation remained 3.9 million jobs shy of the February 2020 level.) 

We need more jobs to bring more prime-age men and women back into the job market, especially those without a four-year college degree. As good-paying manufacturing and extraction jobs disappeared from the economy in recent decades, many prime-age men found that they could not find employment paying more than half their prior wage — and the employment rate of men aged 25-54 years old fell from 95 percent in the late 1960s to only 86 percent in 2019. 

Better paying jobs and more affordable childcare made possible by BBB will also bring more women back into the workforce. 

While slimmed down and not a panacea, Build Back Better would create a lot of jobs, many of which could be good union jobs and most of which would employ workers without a four-year degree. 

According to the Blue-Green Alliance, the Build Back Better Act will create an estimated 1.27 million U.S. jobs for a period of 10 years. This is a conservative estimate that does not account for the benefits of increased U.S. sourcing of manufactured products due to strong Buy American provisions. This prior study of the job impacts of climate infrastructure investments in West Virginia (summarized by RA here) documents in great detail that many of the jobs created to reduce carbon emissions (or increase carbon absorption) would be in trades and manufacturing. 

We must act NOW to reduce the costs of climate change. 

People and places with lower incomes in the United States are projected to experience the largest costs from a changing climate. Much of Appalachia already faces high costs from weather-related climate change impacts. West Virginia is among the most vulnerable in the nation to massive flooding and power outages. One reason we need Build Back Better is to provide resources for modernizing the grid so that the power doesn’t go out every time it rains hard.

The work and family supports in Build Back Better will transform the lives of West Virginia’s hard-working families. 

Many women left the job market during the pandemic to care for children whose schools and daycares shut down, and have remained home since thanks to the high cost of child care outweighing the benefits of working in low-wage jobs like waiting tables. BBB will create better paying jobs. The workforce support component of BBB includes large investments to make quality child care more affordable, offer universal pre-kindergarten, and establish paid family leave nationally,  enabling working adults to stay home rather than infect co-workers and customers. 

BBB provisions will change the cost-benefit equation for women considering re-entering the workforce. As a result, the work supports in the Build Back Better Act will benefit businesses too, allowing more adults to support their families by getting a job.

Another family support in build Back Better, the child tax credit, has already slashed child poverty nationally, Plus Build Back Better includes training that, when combined with strong labor standards that make many clean economy jobs union (see below),  can help dislocated fossil fuel workers get their next good union job.

Follow our worker supports Twitter thread here

BBB will help reverse inflation.

Why are prices going up? Sure, supply chain disruptions, increased labor costs, and surging demand all play a role. Another culprit? Mega-corporations with massive market power. Companies are not being forced to raise prices to stay afloat. They are choosing to raise prices to maintain large profit margins because they have enough market power to do so without losing customers.

As The Wall Street Journal points out, large corporations are also using the narrative of inflation to increase profits–as well as in an orchestrated effort to derail the bill. 

As explained November 3 by Trump appointee and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell, the factors driving inflation are predominantly temporary and pandemic-related, like supply-chain bottlenecks, a shift of consumption from in-person services to goods, and labor shortages because many parents (mostly women) cannot return to work because of the lack of available or affordable child care. As our dynamic economy recovers, supply and demand imbalances will adjust. As they do, Powell observes, “…inflation will decline to levels much closer to our 2 percent longer-run goal.” 

BBB will help reverse inflation. Even in slimmed-down form, the act will reduce the costs of childcare, healthcare, college, and energy, among other things — all major components of household budgets. The February 2021 study for RA of the impact of climate infrastructure investment in West Virginia estimated these investments would reduce household energy costs 30% to 40%. Long-term, BBB will reduce energy prices and price volatility because of the shift away from our dependence on imported oil. BBB is the inflation antidote!

The current economy has a structural bias against inflation, as explained in this blog. Beyond today’s temporary imbalances, goods producers have little market power to pass on higher input costs. In addition, as economists have documented in recent years, employers in lower-wage labor markets have more market power to suppress wages than workers have to bargain for higher wages or inflation protection.

Follow our inflation Twitter thread here

Build Back Better is paid for

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates and private sector modelers, the act is largely paid for by taxes on corporations and the rich. For that reason, the act will not increase the national debt.

Long-term BBB will reduce the national debt

Long term,  in fact, Build Back Better will reduce long-term debt. Most (about two thirds) of Build Back Better spending is investment that will have a big payoff. This includes the climate infrastructure portions and many of the work and family supports. Investment in child-care and pre-kindergarten, health care (an increase in preventive care), and the child tax credit (because it reduces child poverty) all have high documented social returns.

BBB provides a rare chance for Appalachia to ReImagine its future and realize a more shared and sustainable prosperity. 

Appalachia has a chance to avoid being “on the menu” and to instead shape climate infrastructure investment and the broader Build Back Better Act to address the region’s needs. 

It’s critical for Senators from Appalchian states to use their unique political leverage to help all of us get our “due share” of climate infrastructure investments. (This ReImagine Appalachia October 22 blog outlined specific ways Senator Manchin could seek more resources for his home state.)

It’s time to get Build Back Better over the finish line. By getting in on the ground floor of a massive expansion of a more sustainable economy, this region has a chance to benefit our working people in ways that it never fully succeeded in doing during more than a century of coal-dominated fossil fuel extraction. 

It’s time for anyone who cares about the future of the state to ask their Senators to do the right thing and support the Build Back Better Act.

#PassTheDangBill