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Once in a generation, Congress has a chance to make transformational change.

We have reached that moment — and visionary thinking is what will launch West Virginia into the 21st-century economy. Fortunately, our state has the upper hand — a certain senator with an outsized say in what can get through Congress.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., holds the keys as one of two deciding votes in the level of ambition we can achieve in this moment.

There is no doubt that Manchin cares deeply about our state. As a native West Virginian (and a native of Marion County, like Manchin), I still consider West Virginia my home. My brother is a coal miner, carrying on our family’s three generations of service.

It’s no secret that West Virginia faces a long list of problems and hurdles. But what’s often forgotten in the national conversation is that we have the hardest-working people in the nation. People want to work and aren’t looking for handouts. And as a former coal miner once told me, coal miners are tremendously good problem-solvers. If you’re 40 miles underground and something breaks, you can’t order the part on Amazon — you figure out how to make it work.

That’s a fantastic example of a transferable skill. Find me an employer that wouldn’t want a good problem-solver on their team.

What West Virginia and its hardworking people need is a fighting chance. It’s like starting a marathon 30 minutes after everyone else. We need a boost to catch up.

And there is no shortage of problems to solve. Child poverty in West Virginia is among the worst in the nation, with more than 67,500 kids living in poverty. Many are being raised by grandparents, because the opioid epidemic has ravaged our state and it has touched almost every West Virginia family. Improved and expanded social safety net programs, like a permanent child tax credit, universal pre-kindergarten and paid family leave would help families get back on their feet.

Why are these programs important? An unemployed worker can’t attend new training programs or further their education if they can’t find child care. And you can’t put a price on having paid maternity or paternity leave to care for your infant in their first crucial months of life.

Massive investments are needed. Broadband is a great example. As the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, internet access is the key to connecting communities to the economy of the future. But almost a quarter of West Virginia families lack access to reliable high-speed internet or broadband.

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The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package includes $65 billion for broadband, but more must be done to ensure no one is left behind.

Much has been written about coal’s rapid decline over the past decade thanks to increasing economic competition with cheap and abundant natural gas and with wind and solar, whose costs have dropped dramatically over the same time. What should be obvious by now is that rolling back critical environmental standards has not stopped the inexorable decline of the industry.

Simply put, technological advancement has led to better, cheaper and cleaner ways of providing electricity.

The decline of coal has hit West Virginia hard. Boone County, once the state’s largest coal producer, lost more than 2,200 jobs from 2010 to 2015 and another 825 through 2019, causing a precipitous drop in the county’s budget (largely funded by the state coal severance tax) and leading to the interruption of social services and layoffs of teachers.

Coal is central to our storied history and is a source of great pride — but it is not our future.

Imagining that future requires a vision for what the future could look like. Cleanup of abandoned mines and coal ash ponds could lead to job creation in exactly the places where jobs are being lost.

Manufacturing of components for wind and solar could connect our state to the renewable energy industry and create thousands of good-paying jobs in the process.

All of these priorities are included in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act.

West Virginians want jobs. They want to work. Those job opportunities would be created, if Congress invests in the social safety net, infrastructure and clean energy.

Now is not the time for watering down these priorities. It is the time to go big. West Virginia is ready to Build Back Better and be part of the future.

Jeremey Richardson, a native of Marion County, is a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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