By Jim King
King is President of Fahe, a Kentucky-based network of local leaders, including four organizations in western Virginia, working to advance prosperity for all in Appalachian Virginia and five other states.
In recent months the New York Times has published two columns on the continuing metastization of the instability economy, where regular people endure increasingly unstable jobs as costs of health care, education, and housing rise. This is welcome New York Times coverage on the national level, covering more of what the Roanoke Times has long been saying about these issues.
It is presumed by some that workers will be able to transition into new employment, else there would be a more serious conversation about the topic in the New York Times pages and in the national 2020 campaigns. But what would happen if there weren’t new higher-paying (whether higher productivity or not) jobs in a country, so that people losing jobs from technology or those having their wages stagnate did not have a realistic chance of securing a good and stable job?
The New York Times columnists surmise that this might be happening right now, but there is a natural historical case study: the coalfields of Central Appalachia. The majority (hundreds of thousands) of good coal jobs there were mechanized and outsourced out of existence in large part before more energetic environmental regulations came into effect and natural gas became cheap — by 1960. There was no other industry of similar wealth creation to step in; manufacturing did not enter the region en masse, neither did the financial industry or the medical industry that so many turned to in even the more prosperous Appalachian cities like Pittsburgh.
It’s not an academic subject for the country as a whole. The New York Times reports experts saying “The challenge is not the quantity of jobs, … The challenge is the quality of jobs available to low- and medium-skill workers.” A version of that has always been the challenge in this nation, whether “lower-skilled,” women, elderly, black, Latino or recently, even federal workers forced to stand in food lines to put a meal on the table. Indeed, after the shutdown, the vulnerability of anyone who is not a high wage earner is now amply demonstrated. As this happens to regular people the entire country over, where there are not sufficient good and stable jobs coming in to make it better, may we recommend that we take the conversation to the next step, for all of our benefit?
As the old saying goes, there is no education in the second kick of the mule. It is clear to us, working for prosperity for all in Appalachia, that we can either watch this same trend we’ve seen here lacerate the rest of the country, or we can talk preventative care.
It’s not just the right thing to do to take action on behalf of our people against grinding economic insecurity. It also should matter to our public interested elites and those who would like to be elected leaders in this nation because it would be extremely popular to talk about how jobs are not what they used to be in a serious, sustained conversation. And it would be a way to win elections that can achieve the kind of policy all parties say they support— robust opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.
Candidates who want to lead may propose a wealth tax or a tax cut, and those may be good policy ideas. They are not treatments at the scale of the mass structural changes in the economy. The insecurity regular people are feeling as the unstable economy envelops them with higher prices, stagnant wages, and the knowledge they are dispensable, offers the opportunity for leadership. We would welcome elected leaders, or those seeking to be, to lead a conversation at the scale of the challenge.