Annie Regan: It’s time to reimagine our regional economy
For more than 200 years, corporations have extracted enormous amounts of wealth from Appalachia to benefit owners and shareholders, leaving very little for workers and communities. It’s no surprise that the region — including Western Pennsylvania — has been left with high rates of poverty, unemployment and economic stagnation.
Once an economic powerhouse, Western Pennsylvania’s manufacturing sector is seeing jobs at their lowest in modern history. About 83,000 people are employed in manufacturing as of November 2019, declining sharply from a peak of 382,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1950s.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has further blunted our regional economy, and lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., are brainstorming ways to jump-start and make it more resilient for the future.
In doing so, they can’t fall back on failed economic development approaches of the recent past, strategies reliant upon environmental deregulation and massive taxpayer subsidies to incentivize boom-and-bust industries that leave us with anything but long-term sustainability.
Reinvention is nothing new for Western Pennsylvania. We’re well acquainted with getting up after being knocked down, dusting ourselves off and getting back to work. So it will be this time around, but we have a chance to reimagine and revive our regional economy in a way that promotes sustainable growth and stability, not the quick fixes of the past.
Such a vision is spelled out in a new platform called Reimagine Appalachia, which has been endorsed by 100 economic, civic and environmental organizations across Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
The central theme of the Reimagine blueprint is simple: With the right federal resources and honest collaboration with communities, we can build a 21st-century Appalachia where everyone has a family-sustaining job with good benefits, as well as responsible employers who help protect the environment and the health of the people who live here.
The blueprint recommends actions that can make it all happen.
Imagine a Western Pennsylvania where rural access to broadband internet is drastically expanded, an idea made eminently more important by the prevalence of people working from home during the pandemic.
Imagine a region where manufacturing jobs flourish by making them cleaner and more efficient, an idea in stark contrast to current economic development strategies that rely on fossil fuels, which aren’t a stable foundation for any economy.
Our region could be the next hub for electric vehicle manufacturing and sustainable agriculture, and we can create good jobs by repurposing shuttered industrial sites into new eco-industrial parks that turn one company’s waste into another company’s raw materials.
Our organizational endorsers agree that manufacturing, energy and construction must anchor a practical and equitable Appalachian economy, and that we must maximize family-sustaining jobs by prioritizing specific policies that bolster workers’ rights and tap into emerging industries with long-term potential.
For instance, with public funding to retool existing facilities, Appalachia could be the center for creating the responsible products of the future, such as alternatives to single-use plastic, green building materials, or the electric vehicle supply chain.
As the world demands more socially and environmentally conscious products, we are well positioned to rise to the occasion. Plastic alternatives can even be made from farm-grown resources in the region, such as industrial hemp.
By embracing the vision and policy solutions spelled out in the Reimagine Appalachia platform, we will cut emissions, save money and create 252,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania, according to a report issued on Oct. 20 from the Political Economy Research Institute.
Federal policymakers like Reps. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, have signaled their interest to develop stimulus and infrastructure packages that advance our recovery, and we’re hopeful they will engage with our blueprint in the weeks and months ahead.
There is a growing consensus that new pathways to prosperity, like Reimagine Appalachia, offer the region a bottoms-up approach and far more hope than any top-down plan in decades.
The people of Appalachia have risen up before to speak in a unified voice against dangerous working conditions, 72-hour workweeks and unfair wages. We can be leaders again if we choose to unify and advocate for a better future for all of us.
Let’s hope our elected officials are listening and are ready to reimagine our future.
Annie Regan is a program manager for PennFuture and coordinator for Reimagine Appalachia.