Watts shows where we have been and where we are going – Betty Rivard – Gazette-Mail, Op-Ed

In a recent meeting of the Senate Workforce Committee, the Rev. Matthew Watts, of the West Side of Charleston, made a seminal presentation. He shared a broad view of what is really required to increase workforce participation in our state.

I thought he did an outstanding job of connecting the dots to what I think of as deferred maintenance related to our people who this workforce depends on. He included a focus on the students who need special attention right now even though they are already past the primary years of the first through third grades.

Senate videos are archived on the legislative website. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this presentation from January 27.

Rev. Watts goes beyond highlighting Black disparities to document deficits that affect our whole population, including many low-income whites. This is exactly the kind of economically based reality that the divisive politics of corporate interests are trying to prevent us from grasping.

Diverting us into fighting each other is designed to make it harder to see how we are all being short-changed. One senator stated that the root cause of the low worker participation rate is the dissolution of the family, and the answer is more jobs.

It is critical that we not be distracted from the actions on the basic systems issues. These actions are designed to weaken us and make us poorer. At the same time, we are being asked to support and even pay for tax reforms and other measures so that the rich can get richer.

One of the more brilliant stories that Watts told was how we invest in the system of sports at all levels that culminates in professional enterprises like the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. He described how his son created a travel football team that, after three years of dedicated work, ended up as a finalist for a national championship in its league. He pointed to how this same kind of intensive investment in our young people can help to develop the world class workforce that we so badly need in our state.

This presentation is the result of decades of refining the understanding and the message that Watts has worked so hard to promote. He stated that seven state laws that he and others advocated for have been passed by the Legislature and signed into law but not implemented. He also noted that the governor’s own plans for investing American Rescue Plan Act funds call for redressing economic injustice across the state.

Watts said that these plans by the governor are being ignored in order to funnel most of the federal ARPA funds to out-of-state corporations as incentives for moving here to our state. Other advocates have questioned whether dedicating the funds as the governor proposes is even allowed under the federal provisions.

In a larger context, we may view Rev. Watts’s presentation as a kind of prelude to Black Policy Day. This full day of events at the Capitol is scheduled for Feb. 15. Crystal Good has already published a print edition of her newsletter, Black by God, with detailed policy statements. Dr. Shanequa Smith and the Black Voter Initiative Impact WV, the BLAC Policy group, the NAACP,and others have also joined together as sponsors of this second annual event. Everyone is welcome to attend, with breakfast and child care provided.

We are now in Black History Month, which rightfully addresses the need to ensure that Black citizens are able to share their stories. We also know that all of our history needs to be inclusive in order for us to understand where we came from, who we are and where we need to go in the future.

The disparities affecting our Black neighbors are a subset of the kinds of universal economic realities that Watts points out. His leadership is invaluable in pointing to specific steps that need to be taken to improve conditions for all of us.

One cornerstone of his presentation is the investment of $300 million in ARPA funds in our poorest counties. This money would be allocated on the basis of the percentage of people in poverty related to the total population. He gives the example that Clay County, the district served by House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, has the second-highest percentage of people in poverty in our state at 1%. Therefore they would receive 1% of the $300 million, or $3 million.

There is no doubt in my mind that the people of Clay County would be able to come together to figure out how best to spend these funds. They are the ones who know best what is needed to develop their local economy and improve the quality of life for everyone who lives there.

This same principle applies to each county that would be affected.

A parallel movement is developing to use at least part of the $700 million in funds that are identified as surplus in the current year’s state budget. The increased revenues from severance taxes that contribute would be returned to the counties that produced the coal, oil and gas that resulted in these increases.

We need to trust ourselves to make the best possible decisions about our own communities. Watts points to the unique opportunity that we have right now to make a real difference in the future of our state. I suggest that each of us learn more about his proposals and work to help promote and implement them in any way that we can.

From an even broader perspective, I suggest that we need to change our thinking from an economy based on scarcity and competition. It almost seems like we are afraid to enable the difficult and complex work of investing in ourselves. Proposals for things like a fund to attract out-of-state industries or changes in our tax system to give more money to the wealthy are like an easy way out.

At the same time we know from past years of tax cuts here and from witnessing the experiences of other states, like Kansas, that trickle down economics do not work. What does work is to invest directly in improving the quality of life for our citizens and their small businesses here at home. Small businesses, in particular, are mostly place-based and not going anywhere, even as some of them may now attract a global clientele through digital connections.

Our economy does not need to be viewed as a finite pie that fosters competition because you have to get less if I am to get more. With imagination, hard work, and ingenuity we can all reap the rewards of unlimited expansion based on strategic investments that will do the most good. We are also no longer tied to limited resources for energy that harm life on our earth.

Albert Einstein said “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” We are an intelligent people. We can each use our imagination to envision and create the world that we want to see for the benefit of all of us.

We have generations of experience in successful community-based planning and decision-making. I can share personal stories of these successes going back 50 years, building on even older legacies of those who came before us.

Organizations like the Appalachian Regional Commission, Reimagine Appalachia, the HUB and Coalfields Development are leading the way now in showing what we can accomplish through local initiatives in our southern coalfields and across our great state.

Trust us to use these new federal funds, along with any state funds that are available, to make the greatest difference in our own communities. Through working together we can establish a firmer foundation for further growth and the great quality of life that we know that we can achieve for everyone in our state.

Betty Rivard, of Charleston, is a retired social worker for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.