BlogCommunity Benefits and Labor Standards

New Report: Re-Connecting Appalachia’s Disconnected Workforce through Targeted Employment

By August 10, 2023September 17th, 2023No Comments

August 10, 2023

Appalachia is a region of hard workers, but too many of us who want to work are not able to find a job. Even when the unemployment rate is low, many Appalachians who want to work remain disconnected from the workforce. The result has been a long-term structural unemployment problem that has persisted for decades, exacerbated by factors like Covid and the opioid crisis, with too many Appalachian adults out of the workforce entirely and unable to secure a decent paying job where they live.

Addressing these issues is how we can build an economy that respects all working people — with quality jobs and education, affordable healthcare and childcare — so people can work, take care of our families, and contribute to our communities. This includes displaced workers, returning citizens, and people with disabilities. We are a stronger nation when more people are working.

A federal job subsidy program that is targeted at breaking down barriers to employment – such as improving the skills and experience of potential workers to meet current employer demands in their local labor market – and connecting them with a job, could not only boost incomes and improve the livelihood of thousands of Appalachians, but also give people self-esteem, a source of identity, and feel more connected to their community.

This report examines the economic conditions of Appalachia with a particular focus on Appalachian counties in four-states – Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia -that comprise the footprint of ReImagine Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley Institute. This includes describing how Appalachia has been a “region apart” from the rest of America, including its history of resource extraction and exploitation, the collapse of the steel industry, and now coal, that has led to large employment losses in the area, and how the region’s uneven development has led to chronically low rates of employment, disenfranchisement from the labor market and even loss of hope underpinning the opioid epidemic from which the Appalachian region was particularly hard hit.

Watch the recording of our press conference for the release of this report here.

Key Findings:

Appalachia is not a poor region. Our workers have created a tremendous amount of wealth. As noted in the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission report:  

Much of the wealth produced by coal and timber was seldom seen locally. It went downstream with the great hardwood logs; it rode out on rails with the coal cars; it was mailed between distant cities as royalty checks from nonresident operators to holding companies who had bought rights to the land for 50 cents or a dollar an acre. Even the wages of local miners returned to faraway stockholders via company houses and company stores. 

Unique factors have made it hard for Appalachians to retain the wealth we create: 

We don’t own our land: 

In its 1983 report, the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force taskforce concluded that land in six of the Central Appalachian states was concentrated in the hands of several dozen corporate and absentee owners who paid little in taxes, leaving an inadequate tax base to fund education and infrastructure development and leading to higher levels of poverty, social inequality, and a lower quality of life in the region.

The boom and bust cycle of many of our industries

Coal, timber and natural gas lead to peaks and valleys of employment. Over the long run these result in slow employment growth, out-migration of Appalachia’s young people, and little in the way of economic diversity which inhibits long-term economic growth and development.

Coal country Appalachia has a critical need for more employment.

  • According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Nationwide, 78 percent of people ages 24 to 64 are in the labor force compared to just 60 percent in Central Appalachia
  • Reasons for the region’s ultra-low labor force participation rate include a high rate of disability and poor health from a large share of physically demanding jobs and living and working near extractive industries, as well as the impacts of the opioid crisis. 
  • If Central Appalachia’s labor force participation rate matched the national rate for those between age 25 and 64, an additional 172,700 people would be in the labor force. If these additional people were counted as unemployed, the unemployment rate in Central Appalachia would jump from 6.2 percent to 27.8 percent – or four and half times what the official statistic implies.

We need to build an economy that respects all working people – displaced workers, returning citizens, and people with disabilities. We are a stronger nation when more people are working.

A prerequisite for improving economic and social outcomes for Appalachia is to ensure more people can enter the workforce and find meaningful employment. Increasing the employment in Appalachia can increase incomes, improve health, build a stronger tax base, and create stronger economic growth.

We don’t just need more jobs, we need more jobs that boost the economy — by paying people enough to support their families and contribute back to their communities and local economies.  

How can we build an economy that respects all working people — with quality jobs and education, affordable healthcare and childcare?  

One approach is for the government to provide subsidized employment to hard-to-reach populations. We’ve done that before with programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps. We can create new opportunities for people who are left out while improving outcomes across our community. 

While there are national job subsidy programs for youth and the senior population, there is no large-scale job subsidy program for prime–age workers (ages 25-54), who are the largest share of the population.  

Not every good job should require a college degree

For example, in 1979, West Virginia had the smallest share of its workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher but had a state median hourly wage above the national average. The higher wages were partly the result of the high unionization rate in West Virginia, especially in goods-producing jobs like coal mining, construction, and manufacturing that often didn’t require college degrees.

In conclusion:

In the near term, federal climate and infrastructure legislation will create millions of jobs. A portion of these jobs should be used for targeted hiring of disconnected workers with the help of community-labor partnerships financed by a small fraction of project funds.

A well targeted job subsidy program geared toward addressing long-term structural unemployment that follows best practices, utilizing current government resources and programs and building new ones, could help bring Appalachia more in line with the national employment rate while boosting incomes and employment and boosting the quality of life for thousands of families.

Read/download the report here: