Athey, a 34 year-old father of four who has only donned a miner's helmet for two years, says he plans to return to work in a mine as soon as possible.
"It's the only thing I know how to do," he said. "I don't read and write."
Working in a mine is one of the few careers here that can yield a decent salary -- especially for young adults in this economically-struggling region who may lack even a high school diploma.
Nine out of 10 Appalachian men do not receive college degrees; some don't even finish high school. The average starting salary for a coal mine worker is $60,000.
We keep saying "retraining" but with coal, it's "training." Coal miners make 70k a year with union benefits and they can say shit like "I don't read or write" and it's not a hindrance to their lifestyle. Meanwhile I got an employee with $100k in debt and two master's degrees who, before we brought her on, was driving for Amazon for $9 an hour.
I've spent some time up in mining towns in New Mexico. Red River, Questa. Back in the '90s that mine was still conditionally open and the primary source of income was welfare. "This is my home, this is my lifestyle" is the core value of citizenship but not even an afterthought of capitalism. We get rid of coal mining and the Appalachians become a wasteland. If you're a coastal liberal elite, you get The Byrds in your head but if you're not, you get Loretta Lynn.
Nobody sings about the rustic craft of the JC Penney counter girl.