Trump Wants to Make Coal Mining Jobs a Big Election Issue and the Washington Post is Ready to Help

As a major proponent of global warming, Donald Trump apparently thinks it benefits him to be perceived as a savior of jobs in the coal industry. This is likely not because he can do much to protect the country’s remaining coal jobs, but it gives him an opportunity to appear to be supporting workers.

The Washington Post, which is owned and controlled by people who will pay lower taxes with Donald Trump back in the White House, seems anxious to help Trump in this effort. That is the most likely explanation for the article near the top of the home page on how the Democrats are facing problems in a coal county in Pennsylvania.

Before dealing with the specifics of the article, some background on coal and coal mining jobs is needed. The coal industry used to be a huge employer, both in Pennsylvania and across the country, as shown below.

Coal Industry Employment Since 1890

Source: US Census via Wikimedia.

At its peak in the middle of the 1920s, there were more than 850,000 people employed in coal mining. This was a time when total non farm employment was around 30 million, which means that coal mining would have accounted for roughly 2.8 percent of all jobs in the country.

Employment in the industry fell sharply over the next four decades, as oil and gas heating replaced coal to a large extent, and productivity growth reduced the need for miners. By the late 1960s, we were down to around 130,000 jobs in the coal industry, meaning we had lost over 700,000 jobs. At that point, total non farm employment was over 70 million, so the coal industry accounted for a bit less than 0.2 percent of total employment.

There was an uptick in employment in the industry in the 1970s, as the OPEC price increases led people to switch back to coal. Employment in the industry peaked at roughly 260,000 in 1979.

Employment in the industry then fell sharply over the next 20 years, sitting at just over 100,000 by 2000. The major factor was productivity growth, as strip mining replaced underground mining and also a switch back to oil and gas as their price fell back from the 1970s levels. Pollution regulation was also a factor in this decline, but a less important one. We were producing 50 percent more coal in 2000 than we had in 1979.

In the last dozen years, employment in the industry again fell sharply as natural gas displaced coal in many electric power plants. Currently, employment stands at a bit over 40,000, which is slightly less than 0.03 percent of total employment.

It’s clear that the general direction of employment in the coal industry is downward. Solar and wind power are already cheaper in most circumstances, with the costs declining rapidly. The cost of battery storage is also declining rapidly. Unless we impose massive taxes on clean energy and/or have huge subsidies for coal, we will be using much less coal in the years ahead.

This means that we will lose most or all of these 40,000 jobs in the not distant future. The question is, how big a deal is this?

Let’s say we lose the jobs over the course of a decade. That comes to 4,000 jobs a year. By comparison, in a healthy economy, 1,600,000 workers are laid off or fired from their jobs every month. This means that the 4,000 or so coal mining jobs we can expect to lose over the course of a year are less than one-tenth the number of people who would be losing their jobs in a typical day.

To be clear, the fact that lots of other people are losing their jobs doesn’t mean the job loss is any less traumatic for these coal miners. In many cases, this will be the best job they can ever hope to get. And in some small towns, the coal mine will be the main employer, so its loss will devastate the community. That is not something to be trivialized.

But we do need to keep it in perspective. Between 2000 and 2007 (before the Great Recession) we lost 3.5 million manufacturing jobs, largely due to trade. This far more massive loss of jobs (roughly 100 times as many) seemed to get less attention from the WaPo and other media outlets than the coal mining jobs now at risk.

Even taking this WaPo piece at face value, it’s difficult to see much of a case for its story. Pennsylvania is widely recognized as a swing state and a small number of votes can make a difference, but we should be clear on how small the number at stake here is likely to be.

Pennsylvania has 4,700 coal mining jobs as of May. Total employment in the state was 6.15 million, which means that the industry accounted for less than 0.08 percent of statewide employment.

The counties where coal is important are overwhelmingly white. Indiana County, which is the focus of the article is roughly 95 percent non-Hispanic white. Trump carried the rural white vote in 2020 by margins of close to two to one even in areas like rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the coal industry has never been an issue. That means that if Biden can somehow overcome anger over coal jobs, he would still likely lose these voters by a large margin.

Suppose that every coal mining job is associated with two votes and if Biden can somehow do the right thing by the miners (in their view) it will reduce Biden’s losing margin among this group by 10 percentage points. That would translate into 940 additional votes for Biden. This is almost certainly a large exaggeration of what is plausibly at stake since many of these people will not vote and 10 percentage points would be a very large shift.

In 2020, Biden’s margin of victory in the state was 1.2 percentage points or 80,000 votes. In this context, the 940 votes plausibly at issue in coal country could matter, but it’s not likely.

What could have a much greater effect is if the Washington Post and other major media outlets can keep up a drumbeat that Biden is indifferent to the plight of ordinary workers. That is how this article is best understood.

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

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