It is irresponsible for politicians to suggest that these mining jobs will return; they can’t and won’t. And even if mining recovered modestly, it would make at best a small contribution to coal states’ economies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mining and logging now account for only 3% of West Virginia’s total employment and less than 1% of Kentucky’s. Coal is less an economic development issue than a potent symbol in the partisan culture war. The future lies elsewhere.
Real economic recovery in Appalachia—the heart of Red America—requires facing some hard truths. As of 2015, according to the Census Bureau, West Virginia had the fourth-lowest median household income in the country, and Kentucky the second-lowest. Although neither state is a hub for high-wage jobs, the real problem is that so few of their denizens do any work at all. West Virginia has the lowest labor-force participation rate of any state in the country, 53%, and Kentucky the seventh-lowest, 58.5%. Although older than average populations are a contributing factor, that isn’t the big story: Among prime working-age adults, age 25 to 54, West Virginia ranks dead last, Kentucky next to last.
Here again, we are dealing with longstanding, deeply entrenched forces. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reports that the state’s labor-force participation has ranked last every year since 1976, consistently lagging the national average by at least 9 percentage points. Low levels of educational attainment help explain this gap, as does poor health. West Virginians are twice as likely as the average American to receive federal disability payments. Indeed, the share of the state’s adult population dependent on Social Security Disability Insurance is the highest in the country. (Kentucky ranks fourth.)