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Green Jobs and Rural Economies

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The questions around economic development in rural America are deeply complex. A few facts. First, rural America has been in a decades-long economic and population decline. In some areas, such as the western Great Plains, this has now gone on for nearly a century. In other areas, such as West Virginia, it’s more like a half-century. But it’s a long time. Second, rural economies do not exist outside of cultural norms and desires. In other words, mining towns develop around mining and it’s mining that the everyday people want in those towns, whether we are in Butte, Montana; Leadville, Colorado; or Welch, West Virginia. In other words, it’s not just jobs that people want, it’s particularly types of jobs that came out of a different era of American history and which are heavily masculine. It’s not just mining. Old timber workers in Oakridge, Oregon or Forks, Washington or Jay, Maine want timber jobs, not tourism. It’s the same with fishermen in New Bedford, Massachusetts or Point Judith, Rhode Island. And for that matter, it’s the same in the steel towns such as Canton and Youngstown.

The cultural side of this is extremely important. That’s because the Biden infrastructure plan does have a lot of money for these communities. But is it enough money? And does the turn to, say, green energy, make these rural Americans any less bitter and less prone to fascism? The answer to both questions may very well be no.

A proposed $12 billion in community college spending should help ensure the city has the work force employers are looking for, she said. Plans to build broadband across rural communities could better connect Lincoln and its job opportunities with the rest of Nebraska.

And the financial help for cities and states included in the American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, should allow more basic investments to make the city appealing to young families.

The city has been slowly replacing lead water lines so residents can be confident of safe drinking water, she said, and it now has the prospect of being able to complete that work faster.

“I think there was a sigh of collective relief among mayors of cities this size you could hear around the country” when the American Rescue Plan passed with money for local governments, Mayor Gaylor Baird said. “Everything about this moment feels like it has the potential to be transformational.”

Mr. Williams, the Huntington mayor, also cast this as a moment with long-lasting implications. His city, a onetime industrial hub, features a low cost of living and lots of natural beauty, and is the home of Marshall University. It could appeal to workers who see an opportunity to work remotely and are tired of the stresses of bigger cities.

“The growth is going to occur where there is a community that is functional,” Mayor Williams said. “Covid was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as people realize they can work remotely if they have access to broadband and clean water and a safe and solid community.”

The infrastructure legislation, he said, could be the jolt that assures people that the city can offer both jobs and amenities — and that it is reversing population loss and economic decline.

“Sadly, when you look at our population losses, individuals have left just because they haven’t felt like they had a lot of choice,” he said. “My job is to give them a choice.”

That piece doesn’t really get into the cultural side at all. And it needs to.

I was once in a county courthouse in rural West Virginia. There was a local newspaper. I had a minute so I looked at it. It made the argument that West Virginia needed mountaintop removal coal mining in order that it could create “flat, developable land,” except that “developable” was spelled some oddball way and may in fact not actually be a word anyway. I don’t Walmart is looking to build on top of mountaintop removal sites, not to mention industrial facilities. It was a ridiculous.

These issues are really important for a number of reasons. Not only do we have the political polarization, but we also have a deeply divided nation around issues of housing and cost of living, as the linked article mentions. People are leaving the cities because they can work from home. But these are rich whites driving up the cost of living in Grand Junction, Colorado and Taos, New Mexico, not Hastings, Nebraska or Lawton, Oklahoma. In other words, maybe the mayor of Huntington thinks that he can attract people from the big cities. But I’ve been to Huntington. And it basically sucks. The housing is run-down, there are Confederate flags and Trump flags waving all over the place, and while there are some natural amenities, there’s also the massive legacy of coal to deal with, not to mention the piles of trash that exist next to roads across West Virginia, from the burned out hulks of trailers to just stuff people dumped. West Virginia is likely to remain poor for all these reasons, while the poor in Colorado and New Mexico increasingly find themselves unable to remain in those states (or at least within 100 miles of where they live).

There’s no easy answer to any of this. But economic development in twenty-first century America isn’t really about natural resource development. Much of it is about where people actually want to live. Because of that, we have the double whammy of skyrocketing housing prices in some areas and deep economic depression in other areas. And when the fascists want to embrace the old, such as with Georgia’s voting restrictions, it threatens the economic development of the state because they people moving there are disgusted by it. Embracing new economic forms in west Texas or northeast Ohio would help a lot. But all of this is already defined by the economic and social and political divides that dominate our nation. So it feels unlikely.

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