It has been over 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war on poverty. Though this effort did yield progress, many pockets of the country, namely many rural and inner city communities, remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
It has been well established that past behemoth industries such as coal mining and manufacturing have dwindled, hitting each of these two communities particularly hard. For instance, there were over 200,000 coal workers in the United States in 1980, now there are less than 100,000 coal miners (1). Also, based on increased efficiencies and worldwide competition, American companies need to hire fewer workers in manufacturing today than in the past. The challenges of many of our inner city and rural communities around the country have been well documented: troubled school systems, high crime rates, scarce employment opportunities and crumbling infrastructure. How might sustainability and all of its principles improve upon this condition? One answer may involve renewable energy.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 24% job growth for solar installers through 2024, well above the national average for all jobs (2). As an added bonus, in contrast to the coal mining industry, solar workers wont have to expose themselves to agents of lung cancer and black lung, nor destroy water and land resources for themselves and their children. My father in law, George Wheeler, incurred black lung, emphysema and suffered a broken neck all due to coal mining, as he worked as a bolter in a Western Pennsylvania mine.
This environmental job sector may provide decent jobs for men and women in rural and urban communities. Families better off financially tend to have children that do better in school, creating better opportunities for them and their future children. The Obama administration has also enacted several policies that make it much easier for lower income families to afford solar power. For example, the Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program allows residents to finance solar panels via future savings on their energy bills (3). For example, Baltimore city resident Ida Rhyne, who once had to choose between food and her paying energy bills, was able to take advantage of the PACE program to have solar panels installed on her home (4). As a former Baltimore City resident, I can attest to the poverty traps of the city. People need options. PACE is currently not available in the state of Delaware.
If solar energy becomes a household norm, it would create even more jobs and opportunities for these communities. It would also have the effect of lowering energy costs. Many of the poorest families spend up to 30% of their income on energy bills (5). These extra funds could be spent on other goods and services within the community itself, thereby further improving local economies. High energy bills exacerbate the poverty trap many low income families find themselves in, as an excessive amount of effort is spent simply working to pay energy bills.
The state of Delaware was recently recognized for its solar friendly policies (6), though most of its progress stems from larger organizations and projects, as well by homeowners that are solidly in the middle class. These efforts need to be broadened to include the poorest among us.
With that being said, sustainability needs to be taught and promoted in K-12 schools, and sustainability programs should be targeted to lower and middle-income families. Delaware Technical Community College has an associate degree programs in Renewable Energy Solar and Energy Management and recently partnered with Wilmington University on a connected Bachelors Degree in Environmental Science and Policy. We should leverage and promote the resources we currently have in order to effect more change in lower income communities.
Of course, solar energy cannot solve all of America’s issues related to poverty, but may certainly be a weapon in the fight against poverty.
Milton Muldrow is an assistant professor at Wilmington University and Chair of the College of Arts and Sciences. He holds a PhD in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University a masters from the University of Missourri - Saint Louis in Biology. He is a board member of the Delaware Foundation of Science and Math Education and the CEO/Founder of Body of Science LLC.
1. The National Mining Association. (2016). MSHA coal worker employment [Data file]. Retrieved from
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2015). Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/solar-photovoltaic-installers.htm
3. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. (2016). FACT SHEET: Obama administration announces clean energy savings for all Americans initiative. Retrieved from
4. Garunay, M. (2015). How Ida went solar (and why it means you can, too). The White House. Retrieved drom
5. Boyce, D. & Wirfs-Brock, J. High utility costs force hard decisions for the poor. Inside Energy. Retrieved from
6. Rapp, Melanie. Delaware named a top state for solar energy. (2013). DNREC. Retrieved from