On Monday, the governors of some of the 13 states that are officially designated as Appalachian will converge on tiny St. Paul in Russell County for the annual conference of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
As summits go, this is hardly the Big Three at Yalta or Reagan-Gorbachev at Reykjavik. On the other hand, it’s not every day that even a single governor visits St. Paul, much less a baker’s dozen. (The actual number will surely be a lot less, perhaps no more than three, but those who don’t make it are expected to send high-level representatives).
In any case, my interest today is less with the spectacle of a whole bunch of governors in St. Paul – or even a small bunch of governors in St. Paul – than it is with the substance of what might come out of this conference. The headline item here is the unveiling of the commission’s new strategic plan to update the last one approved in 2016.
The ARC is one of those government entities that easy to say is unnecessary. The Trump administration certainly did; former President Trump’s first budget tried to eliminate it altogether – some “thank you” for all those Appalachian voters who gave him thundering majorities. It’s easy to overlook incremental progress that builds up over time. In 1960, the poverty rate in Appalachia was 31%. By 2016, it was down to 17%. The number of high-poverty counties in Appalachia – officially described as counties with poverty rates one and a half times the national rate – was 295 then; the number had dropped to 90 when the last strategic plan came out. In 1960, the number of people in Appalachia without a high school degree was far below the national average. Since then, that figure has increased by 150%; Appalachia is now in line with the rest of the nation. Something sure happened over that time.
We can’t attribute all of that to the Appalachian Regional Commission, of course, but all the money it’s invested in unsexy but important things like water and sewer systems probably had some impact, right? Between 1970 and 2012, counties that were the recipients of ARC-funded projects saw that employment increase 4.2% faster than counties that didn’t and their per capita income increased 5.5% faster. Again, maybe there are other factors to be considered, too – there almost always are – but we don’t see anyone clamoring to dig up all those water and sewer projects, either. The ARC is a lot more than water and sewer, of course, but I mention that because there are few things less glamorous. On the other hand, people in metro areas take those things for granted, and for a long time parts of Appalachia could not. In 1970, the number of homes in Appalachia without indoor plumbing was well below the national average; today it’s not. So there.
Those problems have largely been fixed but now there are 21st century problems to contend with that disadvantage Appalachia (along with lots of other rural areas). One of the driving economic trends of our time is what’s often called “the great divergence” – the concentration of tech jobs in a relative handful of metro areas while large parts of the country get hollowed out. Cities have always had an economic advantage over rural areas, of course, but they were still economically linked. If Detroit did well making and selling cars, that meant steel plants in Gary, Indiana did well, and ultimately coal miners in Appalachia did, too. The tech economy has broken that linkage. Silicon Valley is not buying algorithms mined in Southwest Virginia. To the extent that tech companies are among the leaders in demanding green energy, their growth actually hurts the traditional coal-based economy of parts of Appalachia. We have at least two different Americas – and two different Virginias – based on geography.
Now, here’s the place where I could pivot and say that the Appalachian governors – some Democratic, some Republican – should be calling for major federal investment in their region. There’s certainly infrastructure that’s needed. I notice that Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, mentioned in the first debate in Grundy that he wanted to see the Coalfields Expressway built but didn’t explain how he’d pay for it. The Virginia Department of Transportation puts the cost at $5.1 billion. That’s hard to pay for now; it will be harder to pay for if Youngkin’s tax-cut plan goes through.
The region certainly needs government investment, be it for the Coalfields Expressway or water and sewer or, today’s urgent priority of rural broadband. But there’s something else it needs, too, and needs more of – private investment. Government can pay for infrastructure and workforce training programs and lots of other things to create more accessible economic development sites or more talented labor pools, but ultimately it’s private investors who create jobs. And they’re the ones who are often busy right now creating jobs somewhere else. I mentioned earlier that tech companies are among the leaders in pushing for renewable energy – good for the planet, not so good for coal country. I think a case can be made that the companies insisting on renewable energy (which, to be sure, is often cheaper) have a moral obligation to put some of their jobs in coal country. Amazon and Apple and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and all rest may not see it that way, but I think they should. They profess a responsibility for the planet, the only one available to us until Elon Musk makes his two-planet dream a reality, but all these companies touting renewable energy should also recognize a responsibility for the part of the planet being hurt most by the transition away from coal. It wouldn’t take much. Amazon doesn’t have to put its HQ2 in Grundy, but does it have to operate so many data centers in Northern Virginia – more than 50 as of last year with more on the way? Couldn’t some of those be in Southwest Virginia, a part of the state that’s clamoring for them? In terms of spatial economics, Amazon and many of these other tech companies are pursuing a strategy whereby the rich get richer. Where’s the morality in that?
Now, moral arguments don’t go very far when the bottom line is involved. Companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to maximize return on investment and there’s certainly a deeper talent pool for tech workers in Ashburn than in Appalachia. Companies, though, make moral decisions all the time, aligning themselves with one social cause after another (probably because they think that’s good for business in the long run). Why isn’t investment in Appalachia (or other rural areas) a social cause, as well? Or perhaps here’s a better question: What would it take to make it one?
Maybe that’s something the governors could talk about next week in St. Paul.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at email@example.com.