Thank you, President Obama, for coming to West Virginia to discuss the rampant drug problem faced by our state, our region and, indeed, our nation.
Perhaps no place has been more affected by the scourge of drugs — both prescription and illegal — than West Virginia. And perhaps no place in West Virginia has been more affected than the coalfields.
I can honestly say I don’t think there is a family in this state that hasn’t been touched by this problem.
Whether it is the disabled coal miner who becomes addicted to pain medications or the teenager who gets hooked on illegal drugs or even the middle-aged professional who becomes dependent on alcohol or narcotics, substance abuse spares no one.
Some, however, are more vulnerable than others, particularly those who are depressed. And in West Virginia, today, it is easy to be depressed.
Several of our counties are struggling with 13-15 percent unemployment, and that is with a labor force participation rate among the lowest in the nation.
Many of our people have simply given up looking for jobs. They have lost their homes, their cars, their dreams and their hope. And it is in this fertile ground that substance abuse thrives.
Mr. President, I thank you for coming to our state to discuss the problem, but with all due respect, part of the problem is the rampant unemployment that your anti-coal policies are creating.
These policies are creating misery on a scale unimaginable even a few years ago. When you were elected, the unemployment rate in West Virginia was around 4.5 percent. The coal industry was thriving even during one of the worst recessions this country has faced.
In fact, West Virginia was recognized as one of only two or three states nationally that were weathering that recession well.
In just six years that has changed.
We have lost more than 8,000 direct mining jobs and some 40,000 indirect and support jobs in this state alone, most of them in rural, coalfield counties where similar employment options are scarce. Billions of dollars have evaporated from our economy.
The result has been the decimation of our towns and counties, closure of businesses, schools and the erosion of the sense of community that we have prided ourselves in having for so many years. In its place has come a sense of hopelessness and desperation.
Our coal miners are not simply numbers on a report. Our unemployed are not “acceptable collateral damage” in the politics of the moment.
Our people are flesh and blood. They are people who have paid, and paid and paid again, for your policies. They are children, parents, and grandparents who have worked so hard to carve a life from these mountains doing one of the toughest jobs in the world and doing it better than anyone.
By visiting our state, it is my hope that you will begin to see the negative impacts your policies are having on West Virginia and West Virginians.
Yes, we have to address the core issues contributing to our state’s drug problem.
But, lack of employment and the inability to provide for one’s family is a major component. I hope that will become apparent to you during your visit.
Bill Raney is president of the West Virginia Coal Association.