How should we treat enduring legacies?
Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one?
Then, there’s the legacy of Appalachia—of mountains, communities, and workers’ battles against the mining companies—which is being undone by current mining operations and, now, a federal judge’s ruling on behalf of the Mingo Logan Coal Co. to continue to operate its Spruce No. 1 mine.
“This town was already pretty much destroyed [by mountaintop removal mining] in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Nida said in a telephone interview. “It went from about 700 people to 60 or 70 now. This will just finish it.”
Blair is of particular significance because of its proximity to Blair Mountain, where in 1921 some 15,000 striking coal miners fought a violent battle with police and coal company-backed strikebreakers. Dozens died, and federal troops had to be called in.
Finally, there’s the legacy bequeathed to us by the unemployment suffered by millions of workers.
People who lose jobs, even if they eventually find new ones, suffer lasting damage to their earnings potential, their health and the prospects of their children. And the longer it takes to find a new job, the deeper the damage appears to be.
Not since the Great Depression have so many Americans been unable to find work for so long. But researchers have turned to the next-worst period, the early 1980s, to seek a better understanding of the likely damage.
A 2009 study, to cite one recent example, found that workers who lost jobs during the recession of the early 1980s were making 20 percent less than their peers two decades later. The study focused on mass layoffs to limit the possibility that the results reflected the selective firings of inferior workers.
Losing a job also is literally bad for your health. A 2009 study found life expectancy was reduced for Pennsylvania workers who lost jobs during that same period. A worker laid off at age 40 could expect to die at least a year sooner than his peers.
And a particularly depressing paper, published in 2008, reported that children also suffer permanent damage when parents lose jobs. The study followed the earnings of 39,000 Canadian fathers and sons over 30 years beginning in the late 1970s. The study found the sons of men who lost their jobs eventually earned about 9 percent less than the sons of otherwise comparable workers.
In order to undo that legacy, we would need to move beyond the culture of poverty, and to have better decisions by federal judges, and to understand that a system that produces massive, long-term unemployment—as well as staggering racial disparities and the ongoing destruction of Appalachian mountains and communities—needs to be replaced.