[This piece was originally published in the Charleston Gazette on June 2nd, 2015.]
West Virginia continues to suffer from high unemployment. Many simply cannot find work that stands a reasonable chance of paying the bills. When an able-bodied person cannot work to earn their daily bread, their pride and dignity suffer, and the result is despair. Despair creates and then aggravates the problems of drug use, welfare fraud, and decay in our communities. We must fight against this on all possible fronts.
This past winter, the phrase “right to work” got thrown around the Capitol. Those are the correct words, but they were attached to the wrong proposal. The proposed law bearing that name exists to bust unions, lower wages and increase the power of influential lobbying groups. The places where it has passed have suffered and they experience big increases in poverty and big decreases in wages.
West Virginians, and all Americans, absolutely deserve the right to work, but that right needs to be honored in reality and not in mere rhetoric: the real right to work is a job. Everywhere we look in West Virginia, there is work that needs to be done, but it isn’t getting done. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of our able-bodied citizens are idle. The solutions are staring us right in the face and it’s time to get something done.
The unemployed are not a monolithic mass. Some have good skills, but cannot find a place to use them. Some need training or retraining to get ahold of the work that is available. Others can find work, but that work simply doesn’t pay enough to make taking the job worthwhile. Some large employers have become industrial welfare cheats, manipulating their workers and the system to claim for corporate bottom lines funds that were intended to relieve poverty. That must end.
Major projects, including fixing our roads and rebuilding our bridges and water supply infrastructure, need to begin immediately. These important, foundational efforts can create thousands of jobs doing work that is sorely needed. West Virginia also needs more police officers and state troopers, and more specialized law enforcement personnel, to deal with the prescription drug epidemic. For the safety of our LEOs and the good of our communities, we have to quickly expand and properly equip those public-safety forces.
We also need to increase efforts to support employment, including the Governor’s Guaranteed Workforce Program. Our success depends on maintaining support for higher education and job training for young people. Other models are out there too: Pennsylvania’s Way to Work Initiative succeeded right up until it lost its funding. Our Congressional delegation needs to fight for West Virginia’s share of federal funds to help our unemployed. With all West Virginia has given to America, support in a time of economic crisis is not too much to ask.
At the same time, we can’t be foolish and look gift horses in the mouth when it comes to available sources of money to fund the renewal of West Virginia’s workforce. The POWER program should be implemented and taken advantage of to the maximum extent possible. We also need to stop our tax system from “robbing from the poor to give to the rich.” Some would like to see workers make lower wages and pay more in taxes to shore up the profits of influential lobbyists – we can’t let that happen.
West Virginia actually has a Citizens Conservation Corps – a successful but far too small welfare-to-work operation that gives people meaningful and helpful work to do improving West Virginia. A Republican Governor, Cecil Underwood, revived this program with bipartisan support in 1998, and it has served West Virginia well for 15 years. There is plenty more this organization could do to improve West Virginia and it needs to be expanded to make sure that everyone who wants to work to make West Virginia, particularly those receiving public assistance, get the chance to work and feel the pride that goes along with supporting a family through honest labor. Every able-bodied person receiving assistance should have the right to a job that can allow them to improve their lot versus those who might choose not to work.
These are just some of the actions Charleston can take to support employment. In evaluating these proposals, it is critical to remember that for each job created and supported via these methods, additional jobs in the private sector follow. The workers repairing our roads, rebuilding our schools, and maintaining our bridges all need to shop, eat, recreate and so forth – putting them to work puts many more to work for the same money. Strengthening law enforcement pays us triple, not only new officers properly employed, but stronger safer communities that can attract business and development.
But most of all, the benefit of honoring the real right to work – a job – comes in the form of pride and dignity. We are meant to work, to contribute, to build the West Virginia our children need to live good lives. The enforced idleness of needless unemployment corrodes the spirit as well as the body and leaves people lifeless and open to the worst temptations. We must not deny people the basic right to dignified work that can support a decent, healthy life. The problems are real, but the solutions are right before our eyes – the sooner we get to work, the better off we’ll be.