This July is the 134th year of the Statue of Liberty. Homeless immigrants from all over the world saw the Lady of the Harbor as a welcoming symbol of a land of “milk and honey” and a better way of life as they fled oppression and poverty elsewhere.
Where now is the golden country of their dreams?
As we look at thousands of farm families forced into bankruptcy in the Midwest, thousands of coal miners relegated to the human scrapheap in the southern West Virginia coal fields, thousands of homeless children in West Virginia, thousands of families in West Virginia who are hungry and cannot find work to qualify for food stamps, and scores of people in Raleigh, Fayette and other counties victimized by toxic waste in the New River and forced to drink its water, we need to ask, “Where is America?” and “Where is West Virginia?”
Within the pandemic period, major publications have noted that we are in a recession leading to a depression. Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell noted on June 10th that “much of the economic uncertainty comes from uncertainty about the path of the disease and the effects of measures to contain it. Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely.” He concluded that “the longer the down turn lasts the greater the potential for longer-term damage from permanent job loss and business closures.”
In Appalachia the matter is even worse. Residents have no reserve asset base or net worth to cover any extended time period. They also have inadequate housing and broadband accessibility to “work from home” and their low-paid and part-time jobs are not those that the possibility of “working from home” is even relevant.
Desperation is evident in many ways. Drug usage and overdoses have quadrupled according to health officials, and the Wall Street Journal noted that the overall number of debt accounts in deferment or other relief programs has doubled to 106 million since March. Revealingly, the number of obituaries in local papers has increased significantly.
In West Virginia, political and business leaders have bravely been suggesting that re-opening the economy after the pandemic shutdown will prove that better times are just around the corner.
However, the pandemic is not over, people are scared, and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly off the charts. To make matters worse, part-time workers who need full-time jobs in order to survive are either not counted in the official unemployment rolls or cannot be located or don’t bother to register. Thus, West Virginia’s real unemployment rate is easily double the current astronomical high rate.
In addition, while virtual education may be necessary more than ever before, professional educators wonder about the long-term impact on educational achievement and development.
The hunger and nutrition problem is also major. Evidence is clear that hunger and poor nutrition are highly related to problems with general health as well as physical and mental development of children.
A balanced diet including fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality protein and whole grains is expensive and taking a larger bite out of declining incomes. When the inability to purchase an adequate diet is coupled with the inability to pay for basic utilities, nutritional intake drops rapidly. Family resources go into expensive food that requires no cooking nor refrigeration. Potato chips and pop, along with white bread and bologna, become diet staples.
The income problem has become critical in West Virginia. The minimum wage in real value is worth a third less than only a few years ago. Union workers have taken direct pay cuts, most have taken benefit cuts, and unions such as the UMW no longer represent most of the coal production still underway.
No matter how you look at it, family assets and net worth for the majority are significantly lower. And the fact that the U.S. has become the largest debtor nation in the world, well ahead of Brazil and Mexico, means that the crisis will be heating up, since the standard economic prescription for paying off debts is to force lower income people to sacrifice even more.
Over the past two years, the buzz word in the gilded halls has been “economic development.” But “economic development” has been an excuse for more “supply-side” business incentives and tax breaks, which are nothing more than subsidies and do little good, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
This July 4th, what is happening to the majority of people in West Virginia? In the Coal Belt, economic conditions are those of depression. Much of the problem is related to “demand-side” economics: there are no incomes to buy goods and services or if people have stimulus funds, that money will soon end. There is no easy way out of this economic crisis. Business as usual in the halls of Congress and the West Virginia Legislature will not lead the way. Nor will attempts to lay the blame or pointing fingers on scapegoats among neighbors. As noted by Justin Lahart in the Wall Street Journal, “the hole the economy will need to dig itself out of is only getting deeper.”
There are signs of a new awakening. There is a growing disgust with politicians who made promises to lead but instead bail out by engaging in drug trafficking, promotional scams for friends and supporters, airs of importance by commandeering aircraft and expense accounts, golden parachute retirement schemes, and whatever else there is to get while they can.
There is a real need for a new coalition of grass-roots people who are committed to changing the present political scene and the priorities of the present economic system. Such a process has begun with the “We Can’t Wait” movement led by Stephen Smith in West Virginia and recent election results indicate that change is on its way.
Miss Liberty is not happy. She is crying because the nation which millions of workers fought and died for is now failing to feed, clothe, shelter, or employ most of its working people. We need to come together and make her smile again.
Dr. John P. David is director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School in Kincaid and economics professor emeritus at West Virginia Tech.