Building a future for Appalachia that’s worthy of its past.
Over the past two days, I’ve taken a road trip through some of the most beautiful parts of our country — and had some tough and poignant conversations.
I’ve met with families in coal communities who deserve our gratitude for the work their parents and grandparents did to build this country. I’ve talked to steelworkers who are frustrated that China gets away with undercutting our jobs and businesses. And I’ve heard from railroaders who are watching the decline in steel and coal cut the region off from future jobs.
From the hills of Kentucky to the coal fields of West Virginia to the small towns of Ohio, Appalachia is a vital part of the United States. Yet too often, the people across this region aren’t treated that way.
For generations, Appalachian coal kept the lights on in people’s homes and schools and kept assembly lines rolling in factories. The region’s steel plants helped build our skyscrapers, and its chemical plants made the products that shape modern life.
These jobs were tough. More than 100,000 miners died on the job in the 20th century, and more than twice that many succumbed to black lung disease. The United Mine Workers put their lives on the line to protect miners on the job and in retirement — and their hard-won victories have helped strengthen the labor movement in other industries nationwide.
Workers of Appalachia made America more prosperous and secure — and that legacy should be honored. We need to do better for the communities that have been hollowed out by job loss and all the economic and social problems that follow.
First, we’ve got to honor our obligations to miners past and present. They deserve the benefits they’ve earned and the respect of all Americans. That’s why I support the Miners Protection Act and the Mine Safety Protection Act. We need to strengthen laws to hold executives accountable when they neglect workers’ health and safety. And we have to protect American steelworkers by throwing the book at China — stopping them from trying to solve their problems on the backs of American workers and pushing for stronger “rule of origin standards” so that Chinese steel doesn’t have a backdoor into American markets.
Second, we need to invest in creating more good-paying jobs here in Appalachia. I was in Mingo County, West Virginia, yesterday, in a community that started an incubator to help local entrepreneurs get new ventures off the ground and put people to work refurbishing homes and businesses. Meanwhile, the county is repurposing abandoned mine lands for a new industrial park that is bringing in bigger employers. That’s the kind of locally-driven development that works — and that the federal government should support. And I want to create a new Coal Communities Challenge Fund to support investments by Appalachians, for Appalachians.
Third, we need to invest in education and training. We’re going to make community college free and give all our young people the chance to graduate debt free from public colleges and universities. And we’ll make it easier to pay off existing student debt — and if you’re an entrepreneur, we’ll let you defer your student loan payments and pay no interest for up to three years while you get your business off the ground. But we’ve also got to make sure that even people who don’t go to college get the quality education they need, starting in preschool. And we have to look at retraining programs and ensure they’re actually working, because the last thing we need are more retraining programs for jobs that don’t exist.
Finally, we need to invest in Appalachia’s families. Too many workers with black lung disease have been denied the health care they need. Too many young people who go away to college don’t come back, because they don’t see a way to make a living. Others stay and have nothing to fill their days. For many people, these problems are too big to bear, and they’ve given rise to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide. We need a national commitment to tackling substance use disorder, because addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. And it’s past time we treat mental health as seriously as we do physical health.
These are complicated problems without easy solutions. The ideas I’ve put forward here are just a start. I’m going to take everything I’ve heard and seen these past two days home with me, and I will never stop fighting for these communities until we build a future for Appalachia that’s worthy of its past.