To Save America, Help West Virginia

Wielding a pivotal Senate seat at a moment when the Biden administration is prepared to spend trillions on fixing the climate, West Virginia is now in a position to make huge demands of the Democratic Party. We can’t let a blend of woke neoliberalism and elite condescension get in the way.

Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

Of course workers, especially women, are suffering from the dearth of affordable, quality childcare, and all care workers are horribly underpaid for the work. Our society needs both care work and infrastructure, and workers in all these vital areas deserve secure, dignified, and adequately compensated jobs. Advocates — even those who are, like Henry, “talking their book,” as they say in the financial markets — should not accept a framework of scarcity. Rather, we should all fight to expand the pie. After all, when you’re driving your kids home from their fully funded, high-quality day care, you presumably don’t want the bridge to collapse.

Dismissing infrastructure investment as “nostalgia” for a white working-class male worker is foolish on multiple counts.

One is that white male workers do still exist. They didn’t just vanish into the sunset of Fordism, the family wage, and the Jell-O mold. A fair number of them live in West Virginia, a small state with outsized political power right now. White male workers there used to work in the coal industry, and many are now in need of green jobs, as well as the “just transition” provisions PERI recommends in its report. It’s not fair for liberals to dismiss them; nor is it politically smart: Would it not be better for white men find well-paying jobs in, say, regenerative agriculture instead of joining the Proud Boys and knocking on doors for Marjorie Taylor Greene 2024?

Then there’s the fact everyone benefits from infrastructure, not only white men. We all need roads, bridges, trains, public school buildings, a working power grid. If you ride public transit, you’ve probably noticed that in many towns and cities around the nation, hardly any of your fellow riders are white. And the urgency of green energy is even greater for the global nonwhite working class who — we have already learned from numerous climate catastrophes — are more likely to lose their livelihoods, homes, electricity, water, and even their lives in a natural disaster. We have also seen, during the last decade of ongoing climate crisis, that the care work women perform — often for free, for our families and communities — becomes far more complicated during such times.

Another problem is the idea that infrastructure jobs only benefit white men. This is a canard. The same bogus argument was used back in the Obama administration and was repeatedly debunked at the time. Back in 2013, the Economic Policy Institute showed that Hispanics benefit disproportionately from infrastructure investment because they’re more likely than members of other groups to work in the construction and transportation industries. The study also showed how much African Americans would benefit from large-scale infrastructure investment, recommending it as a strategy to address black-white employment disparities. People of color are employed in significant numbers in mass transit; both women and people of color are well represented in manufacturing R&D.

It is true that in many other green energy sectors, women and people of color are underrepresented — especially women. But this was even more true of the fossil-fuel industry. And as the PERI researchers point out, given how much women and people of color stand to gain from access to better jobs, there’s no reason the investment in green energy couldn’t include equal opportunity initiatives, including affirmative action and training. A recent Brookings Institution report made the same recommendation.

Why is it, exactly, that women and racialized people have to be caregivers rather than builders of windmills? Isn’t that pretty racist and sexist? Infrastructure jobs have lower educational barriers to entry and pay higher wages than many other jobs; all working-class people should have access to them. The PERI report found that clean energy investments in West Virginia would increase job opportunities for women and people of color and would also likely raise unionization rates for these groups.

Winning Manchin over wouldn’t be the only advantage to investing generously in West Virginia. Presumably, Biden would like a chance at regaining a foothold for the Democrats in a state where, over the past few decades, they’ve lost ground at a blistering pace. And, political maneuvering aside, it represents a historic opportunity to advance solutions to truly existential environmental and economic crises. Now is the time for West Virginia to seize its moment, and for the rest of us to cheer it on.