Pittsburgh epitomizes the industrial revolution. It also typifies Appalachia’s resilience: Steel mills and coal mines had been bustling industries with high-paying union jobs. But the collapse of those sectors forced the city to reinvent itself. And now Pittsburgh is known as a high-tech hub, attracting the biggest corporate names and providing an exquisite quality of life.
Can the entire region undergo such a transformation? “Reimagine Appalachia” is planning for it — an organization that is trying to equip parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky with the skillsets to thrive in a 21st Century economy. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan has copied, in part, its blueprint. But the federal plan would pay for and train workers to run wind and solar projects, build electric vehicle charging stations, and create energy efficient homes and businesses.
Most immediately, though, the resources would go to reclaiming abandoned coal mines and capping old oil and gas wells. In Pennsylvania alone, for example, as many as 500,000 abandoned oil and gas wells exist — sites that are not only blights but that also continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions. Part of Biden’s overall $2 trillion infrastructure proposal would help fund Reimagining Appalachia’s vision, which would cost about $23 billion and create at least 243,000 new jobs.
“It will take a skilled workforce,” says Rick Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, during a conference on Monday sponsored by the Atlantic Council. “It will take development and training. It will take science and technology. This region has some of the best universities in the country. We can create a corridor around Appalachia. We can build real opportunities. We can combine academic and worker resources along with natural resources that will put our people to work.”
The region has a plethora of universities that include Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and Case Western in Cleveland as well as West Virginia University in Morgantown and the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Pittsburgh, alone, hosts Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Zoom is planning a site while autonomous vehicle makers Aptiv and Argo AI — funded by Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen — are already present.
It’s been a painful transition for the Appalachian region. Its people are sicker, live fewer years, and have less opportunity. Good union jobs are now few-and-far between: 12.5% of the workforce is now organized compared to 35% in the 1950s, the AFL-CIO says — emblematic of the decline in the American middle class. The resulting destitution has led to drug addiction, and despair. West Virginia has lost 40% of its manufacturing base as a result. McDowell County, for example, had 50,000 residents during coal’s heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s. But it is now a shell of older self.
If one concludes that coal will never return to the prominence it once had, then there are two solutions: The first is to let its citizens vote with their feet — to leave the state and to find work and prosperity in regions that are awash with jobs. The second to invest public wealth in rural America — to Reimagine Appalachia.
“We need to build regional investments from the ground up,” says Hannah Halbert, with the think tank Policy Matters Ohio, at the symposium. “We need investments that bring up the floor and the low-wage segment of the workforce.” Dollar General, she adds, is where many of the jobs are now being created. The new focus, she adds, must be on expanding broadband, skilled manufacturing, and sustainable transportation.
Reimagine America puts a modern spin on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corp., which helps build a spirit of national service — one geared to preserving wetlands and building outdoor recreation. Such work can provide a pathway out of opioid addiction and the criminal justice system. Idealistic youth can recreate their hometowns and raise their future families there, says Bishop Marcia Dinkins, with Ohio for Sustainable Change, at the conference.
“It provides access and opportunities,” Dinkins adds. “And this is a form of equity, economic mobility, and community sustainability.”
To be sure, the Biden plan is markedly different from that of the former Trump administration, which sought to roll back environmental regulations and to give the coal industry a chance to regain its previous status. But consumer demand and technological gains have prevented that. And that is why the American Jobs Act has a chance of passage. Republicans, though, want a scaled-down version — one that costs less and that is not paid for with higher corporate taxes. To win passage without Republicans, President Biden needs Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who remains skeptical.
“I am confident that Senator Manchin will not let this opportunity pass us by,” says Angie Rosser, head of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, during the forum. “This region has often felt invisible, which has made us vulnerable to exploitation. It is time to get visionary. We are talking about meeting the climate challenge and getting new jobs. For a place like West Virginia, this blueprint is a way to transform and to set a new trajectory — to reinvest so we no longer have to rely on the whims of a boom and bust economy.”
The expectations are high. But the region continues to lag and now Appalachia’s survival in the post-industrial economy depends on it.