Sean O’Leary
is a Senior Policy Analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy
Stephen Herzenberg, PhD is the Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center

Investing in West Virginia to Create Opportunities and Renew Our State

by Stephen Herzenberg and Sean O’Leary

West Virginia is at the center of the national political storm surrounding the need to invest in infrastructure, in families, and in combating climate change. Notably, West Virginia is also one of the states with the greatest needs and that stands to gain the most from the legislative packages under consideration (the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) and the Build Back Better (BBB) Act or reconciliation bill).

Below, we highlight investments in climate infrastructure that would particularly benefit West Virginia. We include items that Senator Manchin is on record supporting or that we think Senator Manchin should support based on his other positions and values. Our agenda—not hidden—is to encourage Senator Manchin to “close the deal” by winning more vital federal investments for his home state, not less investment across the country. We know that many community, faith, and labor leaders in West Virginia also have been emphasizing the potential of these bills for the state and hope the specifics below are valuable in their advocacy efforts.

The ReImagine Appalachia campaign in which we participate is a strong supporter of the BBB Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Together, these two bills are a once-in-a-generation chance to respond to the climate crisis while repairing our nation’s infrastructure, jumpstarting a 21st century clean economy, and delivering the good jobs for which many West Virginians hunger. West Virginians are ready to get to work on addressing our climate and opportunity crises and these bills would give them the tools that they need. 

These investment packages would reward and honor work. The investments in families, such as paid family and medical leave, child care, and the child tax credit, will make it easier for people raising children to work. These measures will expand the labor supply for employers who say they cannot find employees. The BBB Act and BIF also honor work—and working families—by making job-creating infrastructure investments. We estimate that the investment in climate infrastructure alone will create tens of thousands of jobs in West Virginia and hundreds of thousands in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. These will be disproportionately trades jobs and other jobs for non-college-educated workers.

By paying these workers $15 per hour plus benefits in a revived Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and more than that in millions of good union jobs nationally, the package will give working people of every race and gender powerful incentives to work. In some cases—including with linkages of CCC jobs and pre-apprenticeship to opioids recovery centers—this full package could bring people back into the formal job market who had given up hope of ever finding a good-paying job again.

We see the package, taken as a whole, as beginning to rebalance our economy so that it is less rigged against regular people. As the chart below illustrates, over the past century, the economy’s performance for most West Virginians—the 90% (all but the 10% with the highest incomes)—consisted of three distinct periods. (The same is true for most Americans.)

  • In the early 20th century, our country’s mass manufacturing economy emerged, but most people gained none of the benefits. 
  • From the 1940s to the 1970s—the New Deal decades—the 90% saw their incomes triple or more, including in West Virginia.
  • Since the late 1970s, we have had another period in which the vast majority hasn’t benefited. 
  • Many non-college-educated workers lost ground over the past 40 years. Older non-college workers have seen their wages decline and younger generations have earned less than those before them.

We think rebalancing the economy so that regular people earn more through their own labor, in the job market, is something that most regular people across the political spectrum support. The two-thirds of U.S. adults and more than three quarters of West Virginians who are 25 and over without four-year college degrees would benefit especially. In that sense, the BBB Act, as well as the BIF, is bipartisan. And it is “moderate” because it appeals to a broad cross-section of people that perceives government policies to have done nothing for them in the past few decades of wage stagnation and decline. Enacting the whole package would make this “their time”—a shift for which working people of many political stripes have longed.

ReImagine Appalachia believes that “coal country” deserves its due share of BIF and BBB Act investments. Our region, led by Senator Manchin’s state, has literally fueled the prosperity of the rest of the nation, while our workforce has been exploited, our lands damaged, our workers and neighbors left sick, and our communities left impoverished or downwardly mobile because of the loss of manufacturing and extraction jobs. This history justifies our region being a focus for federal investment. That investment would ease the transition away from fossil fuels. Even more valuable, it would lay the groundwork for shared prosperity and more sustainable economies in West Virginia and the Ohio River Valley. We believe that our region and Senator Manchin have nothing to apologize for in making our needs a priority in the BBB debate—in fact, his place at the negotiating table is a way to make sure his constituents are not on the menu. 

We now turn to BBB Act and BIF investments that would directly benefit residents of West Virginia and the broader Ohio River Valley. 

Let’s start with two items Senator Manchin has championed. Since he has done so, we assume he would welcome their inclusion in the BBB Act.

  • Invest in clean and efficient manufacturing. This is one way to create jobs as good as those found in extractive industries. As part of the manufacturing component of the BBB Act, the Senator could seek incorporation of his own $8-billion “American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act.” His bill could allocate $4 billion of the total for use in communities where coal mines, coal plants, and steel facilities have closed. This makes communities left behind a high priority, including census tracts in 49 of the 55 counties in West Virginia.
  • Incorporate the Relief for Survivors of Miners Act into the BBB. Senator Manchin recently “…led five Senators in introducing the Relief for Survivors of Miners Act to ease the burden on surviving families of miners who pass away due to black lung disease. Too often, survivors of deceased miners face difficulties in securing the benefits to which they are entitled, due to bureaucratic proof requirements that are often too difficult to meet. Senator Manchin’s legislation would ease these restrictions and make it easier for miners’ survivors to successfully claim these benefits.” The legislation would extend for 10 years the current black lung excise tax set to expire in December 2021. Without the revenue from this tax, the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund will face insolvency at a time of increasing prevalence of black lung. 

Now, two items based on policies and/or legislation that Senator Manchin has supported.

He says—and we agree—that “broadband warrants FDR-style intervention without which education, employment, health, income and opportunity disparities will widen and that nonprofit cooperatives can again be the answer. ‘…let a co-op just go out and cover costs. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and we can do it. There’s ways to do it, damn it, and we just got to be committed.’” The Senator highlights Hardy County in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle as “…‘the most effective and efficient co-op I’ve ever seen” in its local nonprofit internet cooperative… ‘It wasn’t profit-motivated. It was people that lived in these rural communities that knew that they had to collect and deliver… And if they could do it in the ’30s, and we can’t do it in the 21st century, shame on us.’” A set-aside of $1 billion from the BIF $65-billion broadband allocation could fund a partnership of the Rural Utilities Services with the Appalachia Regional Commission and the region’s local development districts with the goal of realizing Senator Manchin’s vision.

  • Incorporate strong labor standards into the BBB Act. ReImagine Appalachia and others have made the case for incorporating strong labor and community standards into federal infrastructure and climate bills. The key labor standards include project labor agreements on construction projects, which ensure that union standards apply to all trades labor, and “labor peace” agreements, which require employers not to campaign again union organizing when public funds subsidize creation of permanent jobs (e.g., in factories or at broadband providers). One indicator that Senator Manchin supports strong labor standards is his endorsement of the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would strengthen U.S. workers’ freedom to form unions more than any legislation since the 1930s. Strong labor standards in the infrastructure bills would help achieve the President’s goal of creating more “good union jobs” in clean energy and other sustainable economy markets. Beginning to deliver on those “good union jobs” over the next several years is vital to demonstrating to working people of our region that President Biden, Senator Manchin, and other lawmakers that ultimately pass these infrastructure bills are in their corner.

Now, three items that are ReImagine Appalachia priorities—and that we think should be priorities for Senator Manchin.

  • Expand the CCC allocation for West Virginia to increase the value of work and bring more Appalachians into family-sustaining careers. West Virginia has more need for job creation for non-college workers than other states because of its long-term loss of good manufacturing and extraction jobs. As noted in this ReImagine Appalachia blog about the CCC, in 2019 (before the pandemic) West Virginia ranked 48th in employment rate among prime-age men 25-to-54, with only 80% of this group employed. If this group’s employment rate were the same today in West Virginia as it was nationally in 1967-68 (95%)—when good jobs for non-college workers were plentiful—another 70,000 men would be employed. To increase CCC job creation in West Virginia, a bigger share of CCC funding could be targeted to the state using a federal funding formula either like that discussed in Senator Manchin’s American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act or based on the share of documented unreclaimed abandoned mine land (AML) in West Virginia, which is 20% of all the documented unreclaimed AML in the country. (One in three West Virginians live within a mile of an AML site).
  • Incorporate the RePower Act into the BBB Act. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Representative David B. McKinley of West Virginia would provide the Appalachian Regional Commission with an additional $1 billion over five years in POWER grants for economic and workforce development in Appalachia. This is a modest ask—if ARC funding were at the early 1970s’ level, the agency would receive another $600 million every year; if it were at that same level but adjusted for national GDP growth, ARC would get another $2 billion every year. (For details, see this ReImagine Appalachia blog and brief.)

Act—one that seeks to achieve a shift from “train and pray” to “train and place” for dislocated fossil fuel workers who are too young to transition to retirement. This act would provide funds over 10 years to assist workers impacted by the transition of our national energy systems—for wage replacement or supplements, pension and health benefits, and educational grants to the children of dislocated workers. The bill would also provide education and training grants to workers losing jobs at coal mines, coal-fired power plants, in coal transport, or at oil refineries. The language of the final bill should be strengthened to make clear that the priority for education and training grants would go to multi-employer partnerships, such as joint apprenticeship and training funds and labor-management sectoral partnerships, with the ability to help more dislocated workers transition from good, union fossil fuel jobs to good, union sustainable economy jobs—ideally without having to move from the place they call home. See the next page for language that could be incorporated, taken from this ReImagine Appalachia white paper on community and labor standards. Traditional workforce assistance in the United States is often lampooned as “train and pray.” But, when coupled with labor standards that improve the quality of sustainable economy jobs, this transition assistance can achieve the goal of training and placing workers into new union jobs that are as good as their old ones.

If Senator Manchin makes the investments above a priority, he has a chance to transform the future of his state and earn a legacy equal to or greater than Senator Byrd’s.

It’s time to #InvestinAppalachia and #Passthedangbill!