July 4th is a time for reflection on your history. Whether your forbearers came as a slave from the coast of West Africa, as an escapee from debtor’s prison in Ireland, a victim of prosecution in Germany, or an adventurer on the Mayflower, you most likely can trace your background to being an immigrant to a land legally occupied by Native Americans who were not consulted. As we now struggle with the issue of immigration, one tends to overlook our backgrounds and what the Statue of Liberty has represented to people of the world.
According to Amnesty International, “the world is in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in recent history, with around 22.5 million refugees across the globe ... millions of people are fleeing their homes because of war, around conflict, violence and other factors that force them to leave ... they cannot safely return to their homes, and they are incredibly vulnerable on their journey to find safety.”
In America, Miss Liberty became a welcoming symbol of a better way of life as homeless immigrants fled oppression and poverty elsewhere. For those who came as slaves, Miss Liberty has broken shackles that represented emancipation that eventually led to, according to genealogist Megan Smolenyak, Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle (who recently married Prince Harry), both having third great-grandmothers who grew up together in Jonesboro, Georgia.
Where now is the golden country of their dreams? As we look at thousands of farm families forced into bankruptcy in the Midwest, thousands of coal miners relegated to the human scrapheap in the southern West Virginia coal fields, thousands of homeless in West Virginia and our major cities who have inadequate or no shelter, thousands of families in West Virginia who are hungry and scores of people in Fayette and other counties victimized by toxic wastes, we need to ask, “Where is America?” and “Where is West Virginia?”
Recently, the Wall Street Journal noted that major economists are predicting a recession within a year or two. Local articles report that a major percent of families in southern West Virginia have no retirement benefits and are experiencing devastating declines in assets and net worth. In a recent national Federal Reserve survey report, a quarter of working individuals in the United States say they have no retirement savings. Forty percent say they have debt from unpaid medical bills and do not have enough cash on hand to cover an unexpected $400 expense. To make forecasts even more grim Tyson is forecasting a major rise in meat prices. Food processing facilities like Hunts in Tennessee are closing, and in the land of “milk and honey” for many immigrants, milk prices are increasing weekly as well as the price of honey is becoming stinging as bees disappear.
In West Virginia, political and business leaders have bravely been suggesting that the official decline in West Virginia’s unemployment rate indicates better times are just around the corner. However, the unemployment rate statistic is no longer an accurate temperature of economic health. One reason is that millions of part-time workers in the U.S. who need full-time jobs are not counted in the official unemployment rolls even if they work only a few hours a week. This factor alone puts West Virginia’s real unemployment rate at nearly 20 percent.
Another factor that mitigates reality is that West Virginians are being forced to withdraw from the labor force. In most cases, their unemployment compensation has long expired and they have entered the undocumented cash-only economy of survival. They, in fact, have not disappeared nor migrated, as the data might suggest. Furthermore, they receive minimum, if any, benefits.
The hunger and nutrition problem is also major. Evidence is clear that hunger and poor nutrition are highly related to problems with general health as well as physical and mental development of children. A balanced diet including fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality protein and whole grains is expensive.
When the inability to purchase an adequate diet is coupled with the inability to pay for basic utilities, nutritional intake drops rapidly. Family resources go into expensive food that requires no cooking nor refrigeration. Potato chips and pop, along with white bread and bologna, become diet staples.
The income problem has become critical in West Virginia. The minimum wage in real value is worth a third less than when federal legislation passed. Most union workers have taken direct pay cuts, most have taken benefit cuts, and unions that existed are shadows of the past. And the fact that the U.S. has become the largest debtor nation in the world, means that the crisis will be heating up, since the standard economic prescription for paying off debts is to force lower income people to sacrifice even more.
Over the past few years, the buzz word in the gilded halls has been “economic development.” But “economic development” has been an excuse for more “supply side” business incentives and tax breaks, which are nothing more than subsidies for those who “have” and do little good for the “have nots” as noted recently in the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the actual impact of anti-union so-called “Right to Work” legislation passed by the West Virginia legislature.
This July 4th, what is happening to the majority of people in West Virginia? In the Coal Belt, economic conditions are those of depression. Much of the problem is related to “demand-side” economics: there are no incomes to buy the goods and services. There is no easy way out of this economic crisis and it will become worse. UMWA pensions and Black Lung benefits are in jeopardy and those receiving disability payments are becoming fewer in number. Business as usual in the halls of Congress and the West Virginia Legislature will not lead the way. Nor will attempts to lay the blame on foreign imports or the current wave of immigrants.
There are signs of a new awakening. There is a growing disgust with politicians who made promises to lead instead bail out by engaging in promotional scams for friends and supporters, airs of importance by commandeering aircraft and expense accounts, golden parachute retirement schemes, and whatever else there is to get while they can.
There is a real need for a new movement of grass-roots people who are committed to changing the present political scene and the priorities of the present economic system.
Miss Liberty is not happy. She is crying because the nation which millions of workers fought and died for is now failing to adequately feed, clothe, shelter or employ at least a quarter of its working people.
We need to make her smile again.
Dr. John P. David is director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School and professor emeritus of economics at WVU Tech.