West Virginia Has Everyone’s Attention. What Does It Really Need?Historians in the News
tags: West Virginia, Appalachia, Coal Industry
“What we see is a part of the country that has been neglected by the change of an industry, and nothing came behind it,” said Jim King, the president and chief executive of Fahe, a network of more than 50 organizations working to make Appalachia more prosperous. “And it seemed that no one noticed or cared outside of our region.”
Within West Virginia, a number of organizations short of money are already operating with what Brandon Dennison, an eighth-generation resident, described as a “righteous anger” about rebuilding the state.
“On a spiritual level, in my bones, I know this place, it’s good, I know it has a lot to offer,” said Mr. Dennison, who founded Coalfield Development, an organization that provides work force training and jobs in construction, tourism and solar power, across the southern part of the state hurt most by coal’s decline. “And I know it’s not been able to offer all that it can because of various barriers.”
Many of those barriers went up generations ago, said William Hal Gorby, a historian at West Virginia University. In the 1870s, the state established a system for legally separating land ownership from mineral rights. This meant that families who owned land seldom profited from the coal underneath, which was mined by companies based out of state and used to power industrialization elsewhere. The coal industry also amassed political power early in the 20th century faster than anyone could mount a campaign to tax it. So to this day, West Virginia doesn’t have the kind of longstanding permanent fund that enables some other states to return resource wealth to their residents.
“The big theme of West Virginia historically is our wealth and our income is not here, it’s taken somewhere else,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “That leaves us with very little to grow and invest and work on ourselves.”
And, indeed, much of the country prospered as West Virginia remained poor. Changing that picture now may require rethinking what it means for this part of the country to get its fair share from Washington.
Resources ‘tend to flow to places of density’
Many of the dynamics today in West Virginia would be familiar in old industrial towns in the Northeast, or in rural communities across the Midwest. The population is declining as young residents move away. So the tax base and ability to fund services are also shrinking. That makes it hard to support businesses, to prop up the housing market, to reinvent the economy.
This is a relatively new pattern: that broad parts of the country are falling further behind, as other places grow more prosperous. For much of the 20th century, poorer parts of the country were catching up in wages. That trend ended around 1980, according to economists, when globalization and knowledge work began to reorder the economy, with tremendously unequal consequences depending on where you live.
Today, however, no one in Washington is responsible for confronting that pattern, said John Lettieri, the president of the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank that has proposed a new cabinet-level office to do that. Economists have only recently paid more attention to what they call spatial inequality, or the widening economic gaps between places. And policymakers are even further behind.
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