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Coal and the Regions Left Behind

The NYT had an article that focused on Buchanan County, Virginia as an example of a left behind area in the United States. The county’s economy had centered on coal.

While the discussion implies that its downturn is a recent story, the data presented in the piece shows that most of the decline occurred more than two decades ago. The county had more than 5,000 coal mining jobs in the early 1980s. This had fallen to just over 1,000 by the late 1990s. While there was some uptick in coal jobs from 2009 to 2013, the current level is not very different from the level of twenty years ago.

This pattern of decline is also captured in the data on per capita disposable income shown in the article. This fell from around 85 percent of the national average in the early 1980s to around 65 percent by the end of the decade. There have been fluctuations since then, but it is roughly at the same level today.

The timing here is important, since it is wrong to imply that the decline of the coal areas is a new phenomenon. There was a sharp downturn in coal employment in the 1980s, that bottomed out in the late 1990s. Since then the changes have been largely cyclical. By contrast, the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs due to trade in the last decade was a much more recent and far-reaching phenomenon.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

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