A Hope in the Hollers

Trade and trade agreements are blamed by many people for a decline in good paying jobs, wage stagnation, and other ills.  There’s a widespread belief that globalization and its corporate and multinational organization enablers have handed right-wing nativist groups a club with which to bash free market liberalism, a philosophy that has prevailed since the end of the World War II.

But the current political environment has only led to Brexit in Europe and a backlash against trade in the US.  Adult conversations need to be held that honestly explain why the changes people experience are happening and why they aren’t reversible. 

Acknowledging that complex changes in science, technology and demographics are behind what’s going on is useful but not sufficient.  The sort of boot-strap pulling promoted in the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is not sufficient. Policies are needed to help those left behind.

Now circulating are ideas for job insurance.  Already in effect, but not sufficient to deal with the size of the challenge, are retraining schemes for workers who’ve lost jobs because of international competition.  The national media has started to look at what can be done to help single dominant industry regions of the US when that industry is no longer viable.

Learning from What is Lost

One report looked at previous efforts to help areas of the country that suffered when the tobacco industry declined, not as a result of foreign competition but because of government efforts to reduce the cost of tobacco-related illnesses and the huge cost of treating them.  It pointed out that programs such as job training, college scholarships for young people to study fields that could replace tobacco, better infrastructure including high-speed Internet and attracting new businesses to Appalachia informed Hillary Clinton’s proposal for helping states in the nation’s coal belt. She proposed billions of dollars over 20 years to bring the region out of poverty. These days, anyone asking for billions in new federal spending is likely to be laughed out of town.  But if the administration and Congress are serious about fixing the nation’s decrepit infrastructure they need to get serious about helping communities that are falling behind.

The toolkit is still available and includes in addition to high-speed Internet access; new mobile phone technology; turning abandoned coal mines into industrial parks; investing in renewable fuels; and providing tax incentives for companies to relocate to the region.  The plan also includes more spending on schools, modeled after a 1990’s era program in the Pacific Northwest after environmental regulations there hurt the timber industry.

There are plenty of skeptics who conclude, probably correctly, that you can’t flip a switch and replace one industry with another.  It’s going to take time.  Other skeptics say that the amount of money is insufficient to do what’s proposed.  “For $3 billion a year, you can just about buy everyone a frozen custard cone,” said one resident of the area.  Another pointed out that companies attracted by the tax incentive, operate until the subsidies run out, then move away.  Maybe the best option, said one commentator, is to leave the area entirely.  But that will take support to moving expenses and help getting a job that can’t easily be replaced by a robot, or someone in a low-wage country.  That help is not available now, nor will it under current plans.

An Historic Turning Point

Other voices were more optimistic. One said that there’s considerable promise in cybersecurity and in drone technology, using the area’s remoteness as an advantage.  Another person interviewed said that a company created with money from the tobacco settlement in rural Kentucky makes biofuel from sawdust and now employs 35 people.  Several more former coal miners are employed as security guards.  But therein lies the tough nut to crack.  Security guards don’t make nearly as much as coal miners did.  Also, the chemist jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and even though half the number employed went back to school locally to qualify, not everyone can or will want to do that. 

It will be a long, hard slog to create hope in the hollers and elsewhere where economies have been disrupted, where legacy industries have disappeared, or will.  But it’s a necessary journey, and it must be led by visionary national and local leaders who will stop blaming trade and immigration for our ills, and start to explain that we are at an historic turning point that needs more focused attention and clear thinking than it’s getting.

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