Let’s start with the infrastructure | The hill
At the turn of the 20e century, young America needed energy. Our country’s factories, railways and steam locomotives were hungrier than ever. When two world wars came one after another, the country also needed materials for the battle. America turned to West Virginia for the coal, and West Virginia gladly supplied. Mining was labor intensive, and new towns and communities emerged in the hills that supplied our industrializing nation. Every hard job in coal spawned seven jobs in retail, service, and manufacturing and for a while, West Virginia embodied the dream of the American middle class.
West Virginia today is different. In the early 2000s, our nation’s affection for natural gas and renewables intensified, leading to the decline of coal and its workers. The state’s robust coal industry, which employed more than 130,000 people in 1940 and produced 180 million tonnes as recently as 1997, is in difficulty. Fewer than 11,000 workers remain in the coal industry in West Virginia in 2020, and less than 52% of the adult population is employed. In McDowell County, 35 percent of households live below the poverty line. Neighboring counties are not doing much better.
Unfortunately, economic vulnerability is not far from physical vulnerability. West Virginia has the lowest employment rate in the United States and the places last in 2021 with a life expectancy of 74.4 years. That number is declining, not thanks to an opioid crisis affecting a community struggling with hope as well as the economy. Allowing a state that carried our nation through growth and the Great Depression to fall into dire straits is not fair.
It is time for our country to give back the infrastructure that West Virginia gave us. We must provide the building blocks that allow the state’s economy and its communities to reinvent themselves as we reinvent our country’s energy future. Our investments should target areas of infrastructure raised as pressing needs by Western Virginians themselves.
Let’s start with the Internet. As we painfully learned during the pandemic, adequate connectivity is a prerequisite for education, business creation and employment. Yet, according to the Federal Communications Commission, as of 2021, 18% of all West Virginians and 30% of people in rural areas do not have broadband internet access. Cellular service is also scarce, with large urban and suburban areas unserved by 3G services.
“A lot of students are forced to only be able to work when they’re in school,” says Dave Gilpin, a West Virginia native and field representative for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office. “Outside of business hours, they have to leave their homes and drive miles to a McDonald’s or a local library.”
It is difficult to imagine a path of economic recovery on which students and workers remain at a digital disadvantage. The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council was established in 2016 to guide the expansion of cable Internet and cell towers, but its efforts must be supported by federal funding and private investment.
Physical connectivity is just as essential as digital connectivity. Thirty-one percent of West Virginia’s roads are in poor condition according to the 2021 report for U.S. infrastructure. A drive through West Virginia involves navigating a network of two-lane roads marked with potholes on which a single vehicle breakdown can trigger a transport stop. Passable roads are not only essential to a decent quality of life for residents, but also economic conduits for the state. The launch of the Coalfields Expressway, the first four-lane highway to cross Wyoming County, spawned numerous commercial openings in the historic town of Mullens at the terminus of the highway. For a state blessed with natural beauty and remarkable destinations such as the Hatfield-McCoy Trails and the new New River Gorge National Park, roads are essential for earning potential income from tourism, a promising sector that has generated 4, $ 3 billion in visitor spending in 2018.
The unmet necessities for many West Virginians are even more basic than roads and the Internet. The 2020 needs assessment conducted by the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council estimated that only 63% of state structures are connected to a public water supply and only 47% to public wastewater. It seems rightly out of place in the United States to rely on filling jugs and containers from pipes flowing from mountain springs to get clean water, which “happens every day along the way.” American 52, ”says Lee Dean, another field representative for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. The financing needs to extend water and sewer systems to unserved households in West Virginia are $ 18 billion, a discouraging number in the face of competing needs. Our country commendably supports efforts to provide reliable water and sanitation to international rural communities. It is high time that we footed the bill for American citizens as well.
Economic revitalization is a complicated business and infrastructure alone is not enough to build a stable economy. Solutions that diversify industries, attract entrepreneurs and retrain workers are also needed. However, these reconstruction efforts can only be successful if the basic infrastructure is present to support the new economy.
For a state that has kept more promises than results on both sides of the political aisle, investments cannot happen fast enough. Let’s start rebuilding with the basics.
Lisa Yao is a joint student at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, she worked in sustainable urban development at the World Bank.