Retraining Coal Miners and Tobacco Farmers for the Climate Change Era – Part 1

There has been much talk and certainly a great need to retrain the men and women formerly engaged in the production of tobacco and coal who have lost their jobs to the new “green” economy so that they may become useful participants once again in our society.

 What has been done and how effective has their retraining been in outfitting them for the new economy? This article in today’s New York Times by Coral Davenport  tells us and that it is insufficient. More needs to be done.

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LEBANON, Va. — As Kevin Widener was growing up on his family’s tobacco farm in the rolling hills of southwest Virginia in the 1990s, lawmakers and lawyers in Washington were waging a war on smoking.

In 2006, as part of a larger program to help failing tobacco farmers, the federal government purchased the Widener homestead, and a separate legal settlement with the tobacco industry paid for Mr. Widener to attend community college, the start of a successful transition to nursing.

His mother, Sheila Snapp, now unemployed and surviving on government disability payments, was not so successful. “The tobacco money made a big difference for my son,” Ms. Snapp said while waiting for her clothes to dry at the Lost Sock Coin Laundry. “But it didn’t change anything for the rest of us.”

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Now Washington is gunning for the second pillar of the Appalachian economy, coal, and again a politician, Hillary Clinton, is promising to help — with $30 billion over 10 years to revitalize coal country.

As in the case of tobacco, the idea is not to save the old economy, but to create a new one by retraining miners, investing in infrastructure and technology, and luring new industries.

Residents here are skeptical, and with good reason, some economists say. Much of the tobacco rescue came from a 1998 settlement between tobacco companies and more than 40 states, requiring the companies to pay more than $200 billion over 25 years to help the victims of tobacco — both those afflicted by cancer and lung disease, and those hurt economically by the decline of the industry.

In turn, lawmakers in Virginia created the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which has spent nearly $1 billion.

The commission and similar programs helped send some young people like Mr. Widener to college. It also spent money on projects similar to what Mrs. Clinton proposes: building broadband networks and retraining in fields such as computer repair. It lured a major government contractor, Northrop Grumman, to build an office here, and built call centers for Verizon and TurboTax.

But southwest Virginia is still suffering.

“The government can’t really help Appalachia,” said Gary Lambert, a retired coal machinist who also sold his tobacco farm to the federal government. “The tobacco settlement was a rip-off. They ripped us up one side and down the other.”

The settlement did pay for one of his sons, Thad, to go to college and become a teacher at the local high school. Another son, Brad, is back in the firing line: He’s a coal miner.

“I guess if you want to survive, you have to change,” Mr. Lambert said outside Pat’s Kountry Diner in Lebanon. He said things had gotten so bad that methamphetamine was so cheap that no one even made moonshine anymore.

Some senior coal country Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have also teamed up with Democrats to support their states’ economies.

But residents of southwest Virginia, 19 percent of whom live in poverty, can be forgiven for their skepticism.

“We have great broadband, we’ve gotten some call centers. That’s helped us,” said Terry Kilgore, chairman of the state’s Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. “But it wasn’t enough to replace tobacco, and it’s not enough to replace coal.”

It also seems to be far too little for the scale of the problem.

“I’m a lawyer. I rarely get offended by an offering of money to redress a wrong,” said State Senator Ben Chafin, a Republican, who watched the decline of his father’s tobacco farm. “But $3 billion a year won’t even be enough to buy everyone a custard cone.”

To be continued

 

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