Addressing Automation and the Presence of Quality Jobs in Appalachia

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I tweeted about automation some time ago in the fall (follow my irregular tweets at @AlexDadok) and now return to the topic after Fahe’s visit to the Brookings Institution’s Future of the Middle Class Initiative in December.

 “What business does a network seeking to build the American Dream in Appalachia have at a Washington, DC event on automation and the middle class?” you may ask.

I’d contend that common decency says people in communities where Fahe Members work, who are feeling increasing effects of automation on job quality and number, should have a voice in how we’ll be impacted. And Fahe is there trying to open up space for the people affected on the ground and how we include them.

When the Fahe Network gets together, a regular topic of discussion is the number of stable, quality jobs for building the American Dream in our communities: to afford a modest home, to pay for health care, to put kids through school, to feel secure that our future will be better. Fahe Members know what we are seeing on the ground in our communities. And as Fahe listens to participants in these national debates, we hear very few voices in the same situation as our folks.

Nationwide, it’s similar, automation and the ability to secure a good, stable job is increasingly an issue for people in our instability economy (A speaker at the event showed us that in much of the United States, if you search “Will R” in Google, it does not autocomplete to “Will Rogers,” but instead to “Will Robots take my job”). By “instability economy,” I refer to the stress and insecurity everyday people are feeling as they are enveloped with higher prices, stagnant wages, and the knowledge they are dispensable in the workplace (see Fahe’s May 2019 op-ed in the Roanoke Times). Some people say “gig” instead of “instability” economy, but it seems better to call it as people are experiencing it.

What Fahe Members see on the ground was captured from different economic and policy angles at the December Washington, DC event. A Federal Reserve economist (speaking not for the Fed, he was careful to say) pointed out that automation most negatively affects the lower educated workers, black and brown workers, as well as workers in routine jobs, which are disproportionally in small city and rural areas that dominate Fahe’s and America’s landscape. We know that under the current situation, automation can eliminate these people’s jobs and threaten those workers remaining. We know retraining opportunities are generally spotty and success inconsistent (though we are working on showing the way for Appalachians in recovery). Another study concluded workers in lower wage jobs displaced by automation have increasingly left the workforce.

But what will our country do with this information? It’s good to have a report published, and credit to Brookings for raising funds to have these conversations in DC. But the event’s real highlight provides a way toward an answer: it was The Economist’s Ryan Avent talking plainly about politics and power in what happens to the middle class in America. He pointed out that we made a lot of big dreams happen in this country: college for returning WWII vets, though black Americans were left out; reliable electricity for our neighbors no matter where they were born; an interstate highway system. Those investments were part of catalyzing widespread growth in small business, a democratization of opportunity and prosperity, including for Appalachians living in the Tennessee Valley and for black Americans, whose wages grew faster than the general population in the post-war years. Political decisions made all of these benefits possible.   

Mr. Avent contended that in comparison, making automation work for us and taking advantage of its productivity should be smaller potatoes, and we can handle the political decisions. We are starting to see conversation about quality jobs, the ability to build a good life, and automation penetrate into the speaking points of our elected leaders, including in the 2020 run-up. Whether we ensure our neighbors’ jobs are high quality, stable, and plentiful enough will be a political question, and that will take many of us wanting it—not only in Appalachia, and not just in a think tank in east coast Washington, DC.

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