West Virginians gather outside Sen. Joe Manchin’s office in Charleston on Dec. 20 for a vigil to mourn the senator’s decision not to pass the Build Back Better bill, which would have been beneficial for their community despite the senator’s claims that he could not explain the bill to his constituents. “He needs to see that his decision is going to hurt people,” says JoAnna Vance. (JoAnna Vance)

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s weekend announcement that he would vote “no” on the Build Back Better bill was a direct blow to caregivers, disabled coal miners, and anybody living below the poverty line in his home state. The Biden administration’s $1.7 trillion Build Back Better spending plan would extend both child tax credits for an extra year and an excise tax for the Black Lung Disability Fund until 2025. Advocates say Manchin’s thwarting of the plan is a betrayal of their needs, and will leave West Virginians without necessary lifelines. 

“I felt like I was kicked in the stomach,” said Rick Wilson, the West Virginia economic justice project director for American Friends Service Committee. “So many people here have been working so hard on this, people in recovery, parents who get the [child tax credit], people who care deeply about climate change, coal miners who need black lung benefits that were tied to this legislation. It would probably have more impact on West Virginia than any other state.”

An estimated 16% of West Virginians lived in poverty in 2019, making it the sixth highest poverty rate in the country. When the child tax credit was increased from $2,000 per child under 16 years old to $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for children between 6 and 17 years old as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), an estimated 346,000 West Virginia children, 93% of all kids in the state, were eligible for the first payments in July.

“I’m just so hurt,” said JoAnna Vance, a grassroots organizer with the American Friends Service Committee. “This is the chance to actually put an infrastructure in West Virginia so parents can have child care, paid family leave.”

The last six months of credits were crucial for Vance, a mother of three children who is in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. She used the first child tax credit to pay off her pediatrician’s bills, and in September she was able to buy new tires for the family car. She used to buy two “newly used” tires at a time, but now she could replace all four at once, ensuring her family’s safety on the road. Most recently, Vance and her husband had COVID-19, and during her husband’s two-week quarantine, he was only allotted 40 hours of pay. The child tax credit helped them pay the bills when his paycheck was short of the usual amount.

“The child tax credit is helping families put food on the table, it’s helping them pay bills,” says Vance. “January is one of the hardest months to get through after the holidays, bills are up because it’s cold, there’s not really a lot of help or support for people after the holidays. So I’m really worried about what West Virginians are going to do if the child tax credit isn’t extended.” 

Vance has been organizing to pass Build Back Better and extend the child tax credit for months, even meeting with Manchin to assure him that West Virginians will benefit from the bill. In a Fox News interview, Manchin claimed he could not “go back home and … explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia,” but West Virginians like Vance have been advocating for its passage for months, eager to have the economic safeguards. According to a survey of 348 likely voters in West Virginia, 68% support the legislation. 

“He says that he is not hearing from West Virginians, but we’ve been everywhere,” says Vance. “It doesn’t matter how many people it will help or hurt, he just doesn’t like it. It’s not fair to West Virginians that are going to suffer because of it.”

Organizers, children, and concerned West Virginians affirmed their support of the Build Back Better bill on Dec. 20 outside Sen. Joe Manchin’s Charleston office. The Bill would expand the child tax credit for another year, and drastically impact their quality of life. (JoAnna Vance)

ABC News reported that Manchin privately expressed concern that child tax credit recipients were buying drugs with the funds. Vance recalls a meeting with Manchin in October where he referred to people recovering from substance abuse as “crackheads” multiple times.

“I felt my eye twitch every time he said it, that’s horrible stigmatizing language,” says Vance. “West Virginia is leading the nation in overdoses and in the opioid epidemic and that’s the way he talks about his constituents. Even worse, he knows that I’m a person in long-term recovery and still says those words around me. That’s what he thinks about us.”

According to Vance, and in a CNN interview, Manchin is opposed to the legislation because he believes there should be a work requirement. He believes families should not receive the tax credit if they are not working or do not have a W-2. But finding and traveling to work can be a challenge for West Virginians who are stuck in ghost towns left decimated after the coal mining industry shut down. Fewer than 20,000 locals work in the mines that are left, making even less than before. And in a state that has been a sacrifice zone to out-of-state extractive industries, the bill would offer respite and address climate change.

“There are counties and towns all over West Virginia that once upon a time were booming coal towns, but now, they’re just shadows of their former glory,” says Vance. “There’s no way that you could put a work requirement when there’s no work.”

Disabled coal miners suffering from black lung disease, caused by continued exposure and inhalation of coal dust, would also benefit from Build Back Better. The continued exposure to coal dust causes scarring in the lungs, impairing the ability to breathe. The Black Lung Disability Fund primarily gets its revenue from an excise tax on U.S. coal production. The bill would extend the tax to 2025. Now, the fee will be cut in half, shifting the payment from the coal companies to taxpayers. The United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts released a statement in response to Manchin’s decision not to back Build Back Better.

“We are disappointed that the bill will not pass. We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities,” Roberts wrote.

Wilson and other West Virginia advocates remain determined to push for legislation that addresses their communities’ concerns

“We’re not giving up,” Wilson says.

Alexandra Martinez

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...