Coal country needs santa more than ever

The Santa Train rolls through three of Virginia’s “coal counties”: Dickenson, Russell and Wise. Along with neighboring Buchanan, Tazewell and Lee counties, the coal counties of southwest. Appalachian Virginia, are among the most distinctive in the Commonwealth. They often feature the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state, and are the target of government programs and grassroots efforts.

How have the coal counties changed since the early days of the Santa Train? In some ways, they were more like the rest of America in 1950 than they are today. Where the state and the nation have changed work patterns, the extreme specialization of 1950 has left the coal counties in an awkward position to prosper in the economy of the twenty-first century.

A look at data for these counties, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and for the US as a whole, in 1950 and in 2000, is revealing. (Numbers from the city of Norton are included in Wise County. Data comes from the Census Bureau and County Business Patterns.)

Population is down in all six counties from 1950 to 2000, with the exception of Russell, which shows a 13% increase over the fifty-year period. That compares with a population increase over 50 years of 86% in the US as a whole. The Commonwealth of Virginia saw its population more than double. Of course, the US as a whole has become more urban in that fifty-year period, and many rural communities across the nation have failed to grow.

The population patterns are related to the kind of work people do. In the US as a whole, the trend over the last fifty years has been away from mining and manufacturing jobs to service sector jobs. The service sector includes a huge variety, from jobs in motels and restaurants to education to insurance and real estate to computer services to—a huge sector—health care.

The numbers look like this: in 2000, the six coal counties had 24% of their workers doing manufacturing or mining work. (Mining dominates in Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan; manufacturing in Lee, Tazewell and Russell.) In the Commonwealth of Virginia, 13% of all workers did mining or manufacturing work; in the US, that number was 15%.

In 2000, the service sector in Virginia engaged 58% of all workers. In the US, the number was a whopping 70%. In the coal counties, 42% of workers were in the service sectors.

Other sectors, including retail, involve the rest of the workers. (These numbers come from the government’s County Business Patterns, which has been compiled for fifty-plus years. Other sources may define the categories differently.)

Another difference over time involves who works. The labor force participation rate tracks the percentage of the working age population who actually want to be working outside the home. The folks not in the labor force are assumed to be working at home, retired, still in school, etc. (The current cut-off for “working age” is 16.) Over the last fifty years, the participation rate for men has fallen—as men retire earlier—and the rate for women has risen.

In the coal counties in 1950, 42% of the working age population chose to work outside the home; by 2000, that number had risen to 54%. Men chose to work less over time: the male participation rate was 74% in 1950, and 53% in 2000. Women combined for an amazingly low 10% rate in 1950 in the coal counties and their ranks ballooned to a 41% participation in 2000. These numbers are very different from the Commonwealth as a whole.

In Virginia in 1950, 54% of the working age population was in the labor force; by 2000, it was 67%. The male participation rate was 81% in 1950 and 73% in 2000. Women participated to the tune of 28% in 1950 in Virginia, while the 2000 number is up to 61%.

And how much do people earn at those jobs? Mining jobs were considered good jobs for many years, but the coal counties didn’t offer many jobs for women, so family incomes tended to reflect only one salary. Counties and regions that are not as specialized in terms of employment are more likely to offer jobs for women, thereby boosting family incomes.

Accordingly, income statistics come in two varieties: per capita, which tells us the wage for the average worker; and median family income, which adds up all the incomes for the “median” family. (All of the numbers below have been converted to 2006 dollars to make them easier to compare.)

In 1950, the coal counties actually boasted higher per capita wages ($22,119) than the state of Virginia ($17,801) or the nation as a whole ($21,712). That same year, median family income in the coal counties was only $14,951 (reflecting families that didn’t have one of those high wage earners), while the state median for families was $18,413, and for the US, $28,137. Those higher median family incomes, of course, reflect more women working outside the coal counties.

By 2000, the high wage jobs in the coal counties are a matter of memory. In fact, the per capita wage in the counties is only $28,146, (again in 2006 dollars). The per capita earning for the commonwealth is $39,429, and for the country as a whole, $39,857.

As a reader might guess from the participation rates above, there is still a relative lack of jobs for women, but not as drastic as the situation in 1950. The family income numbers are $35,504 for the counties; $65,614 for the commonwealth; and $60,620 for the country.

Part of the explanation for the worsening of the wage situation is education. In 1950, the coal counties, on average, recorded a median education of 6.7 years of schooling, while the commonwealth’s number was 8.5 years. By 1990, the coal counties were showing a median of 11 years of schooling, while the state number was 11.9. By 2000, the medians were above 12 for all categories, and the government has started recording the percentage of the population that has a high school education. The average for the coal counties is close to 61%, while the state boasts 81.5% of the population with at least a high school degree. (For the country, the number is 80.4%.)

The picture that emerges is a region that hasn’t jumped on the service industry bandwagon, perhaps because educational levels are relatively low. Fewer job opportunities for women—or cultural reluctance—mean lower family incomes, but even the “bread-winner” salaries aren’t what they used to be. All of this adds up to people leaving for more education and better paying jobs outside the region.


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