Speak Your Piece: Counting Coal Jobs

The Washington Post reported Thursday that coal mining jobs in rural southwest Virginia provided "most of the region's jobs." How could the paper get it so wrong?

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The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner reported Thursday morning that the coal industry in southwest Virginia “provides most of the region’s jobs.”

Before we go any further, this claim is not even close to being true, as we’ll see shortly. In fact, coal in Appalachia is a declining source of employment in southern Appalachia, as the chart on this page shows.

Gardner’s story was about Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represents the district and his chances for re-election. Boucher has served 14 terms, but this year coal state Democrats are being opposed by Republicans who contend that the Obama Administration is waging a “war on coal.”

Gardner’s story follows a similar analysis done at Politico.com. On February 15, Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported that the efforts by Republicans to paint Democrats are anti-coal “are putting a group of coal state Democrats at risk as Republicans leverage the tremendous economic anxieties surrounding the future of an industry that is a vital part of their states’ economies.” Boucher was one of those Democrats mentioned. Others included Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Rep. Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia.

It’s our impression that nobody gets elected from coal regions by being “anti-coal.” But we don’t want to fight that battle. What’s interesting is how the national press constantly overstates the importance of coal to the economies of eastern coal states.

Does coal provide “most of the region’s jobs,” as Gardner writes? Reporter Gardner travelled to Norton, Virginia, in Wise County. Wise County is in the heart of Virginia coal country. If coal provides a majority of jobs in any part of Virginia, it would be Wise County.

We went to the Bureau of Economic Analysis site (here) and downloaded the employment data for Norton and Wise County from 2004. (This is the latest available that shows mining employment.) It turns out that 11.5% of the 21,984 jobs there were in mining. 

Coal mining hires lots of people in Wise County, but the industry hires fewer people than retail trade (14.1%) or government (21.7%). 

Coal has been a declining part of the Appalachian employment picture for more than half a century. As the industry mechanized, it needed fewer miners. When more coal was mined from the surface, beginning in the early 1960s, the industry needed fewer miners still.

The coal industry has been ingenious in replacing men (first, and then women) with machines. On the front page, you can see a chart showing the decline of coal employment in the coal areas of Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia since 1983.

In the last generation, the total coal employment has fallen by half. In the 30 years before that, the decline was steeper.

As you can see in the chart below, coal production in southern Appalachia has also been falling since the late 1980s and is projected to continue declining in the coming decades.

The future of coal is one of declining employment and production. Production has been declining since the late 1980s in southern Appalachia.

People in Wise County voted against Barack Obama. In 2008, 63% of the people in Wise County voted for John McCain. They also voted against John Kerry; in 2004, 58% voted for George W. Bush. Nationally, this was a Republican area before anyone had heard of Barack Obama and before a “war on coal” ever started. (If, indeed, such a war even exists.)

Gardner misses the data and she misses the point. People don’t vote their jobs. Maybe they did at one time, but they don’t any longer. If people voted their jobs, after all, in Wise County, where government jobs outnumber coal jobs nearly two to one, they’d be voting for higher taxes. 

Coal is losing employees in the eastern mountains, but not because of any war. Coal is a shrinking part of the economy in Appalachia, both because the industry is efficient and because reserves are falling.

Instead of the complex reality, however, we get the rural stereotype. Appalachians are coal miners, right? After all, aren’t most Kansans farmers? (No.) Aren’t most folks in Maine lobstermen (No again). Most Texans cowboys? (See previous parenthetical statements.)

Somehow, in the pages of one of the nation’s premier newspapers, however, the relative impact of coal on Appalachia rises from the realm of obvious myth to presupposed fact. Perhaps Appalachians are just better storytellers than their counterparts in Maine.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the Post’s story portraying coal’s economic importance in Appalachia fits neatly with the coal industry’s desire to fight regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and mountaintop removal mining. (See this piece from Roy Silver in neighboring Harlan County, Kentucky.) A larger employment base (real or imagined) is an effective tool to use to fight federal regulation. It also fits nicely with a Republican election strategy to paint the Obama Administration as waging a “war on coal” in coal-dependent districts like Boucher’s.


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