November 12, 2020 – For thousands of retired US coal miners suffering from black lung disease, disability benefits from the federal government provide critical support for treatment and health care. As the economy moves away from fossil fuels, other types of public benefits programs could also deliver relief to affected coal workers and fossil fuel communities when work-based benefits are lost. These programs, which range from unemployment assistance to Social Security, also provide a foundation for workers and communities to thrive in a clean economy. 

In a new report, Resources for the Future (RFF) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) examine existing public benefits programs and their potential roles in preserving the economic security, health, and well-being of fossil fuel workers and communities in transition.

“As the coal industry declines, local economies take a huge hit, budgets get cut, and workers lose benefits. Public benefits programs can form a critical first line of defense for these fossil fuel workers and communities as the country transitions,” said Jake Higdon, coauthor and senior analyst for US Climate at EDF. “While these programs are not sufficient on their own, policymakers should recognize the need for a strong social safety net to provide immediate relief and to complement targeted policies designed to support economic development, workforce development, and more.”

The report illustrates five key insights for policymakers by examining two major types of public benefits programs: 1) national social safety net programs, which are broadly applicable across all populations; and 2) industry-specific benefits.

Key Insights

  1. Public benefits are critical for communities in transition and their role will likely grow in the context of an accelerated energy transition.
  2. Benefits programs that automatically expand in times of economic hardship can improve stability in the face of energy-related economic shocks.
  3. Reforms to expand access and utilization of social safety net programs can maximize benefits for fossil fuel communities. Often, access is limited by stringent eligibility requirements, state political choices, lack of public awareness, or other barriers.
  4. Despite the importance of broad-based social safety net programs in the US, these policies cannot address all the needs of fossil fuel communities.
  5. Pension and health benefits provided by industries can contribute to worker and family well-being as well as community economic stability. However, programs that depend on revenue from fossil fuel production or enable companies to shed liabilities in bankruptcy processes will continue to face budget concerns as the  fossil economy declines. To avoid this loss, policymakers can ensure that industry benefits are funded from more sustainable sources; strengthen company bankruptcy rules; or consider whether other industry-specific benefits, like the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), can provide useful models for reform.

Coauthor and RFF research analyst Molly Robertson said, “People typically think of economic development and workforce development policies when they think of supporting communities after an energy transition, and rightly so, for those policies are essential to community success. But public benefits programs are a critical piece of the puzzle, particularly if policymakers hope to emulate policies in other nations where social safety nets are more robust. Policymakers should understand all the resources available to struggling communities and any gaps that may be exacerbated by an energy transition, so they can build policies that best serve their communities.”

To learn more about these findings, read the report, The Role of Public Benefits in Supporting Workers and Communities Affected by Energy Transition, by Jake Higdon, senior analyst for US climate policy at EDF and Molly Robertson, research analyst at RFF.

RFF and EDF’s Fairness for Workers and Communities in Transition series is designed to help policymakers assess strategies to address social and economic challenges associated with a shift to a clean-energy economy. Many of these challenges are being brought into focus by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated job loss in the energy sector, especially in regions already struggling. Future reports in the series will focus on workforce development, clean energy deployment, and more.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.