Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Lure of 'Coal Country'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Lure of 'Coal Country'

Article excerpt

West Virginia went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in November, and it may seem obvious why: The state is the heart of coal country, and Mr. Trump promised to bring coal jobs back by eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations.

But that story breaks down when you look at the realities of the situation. Environmentalism is a minor factor in coal's decline. For coal country isn't really coal country anymore, and hasn't been for a long time.

Why does an industry that is no longer a major employer even in West Virginia retain such a hold on the region's imagination, and lead its residents to vote against their own interests?

Coal powered the Industrial Revolution, and it once did employ a lot of people. But the number began a steep decline after World War II, even as coal production rose. Modern extraction - like blowing the tops off mountains - require far less labor than old-fashioned pick-and-shovel mining. The decline accelerated a decade ago as fracking increased competition from cheap natural gas.

Even in West Virginia, the most coal-oriented state, it has been a quarter century since coal jobs accounted for as much as 5 percent of total employment.

Many West Virginians these days work in health care: almost one in six workers. And much of the money for those jobs comes from Washington.

West Virginia has a relatively old population, so 22 percent of its residents are on Medicare, versus 16.7 percent for the nation as a whole. It also has benefited hugely from Obamacare, with the percentage of the population lacking health insurance falling from 14 percent in 2013 to 6 percent in 2015, mainly due to the expansion of Medicaid.

The whole nation pays for these health care programs with taxes. But an older, poorer state like West Virginia receives much more than it pays in - and it would have received virtually none of the tax cuts Trumpcare would have lavished on the wealthy. …

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