Five Contradictions of West Virginia

“Pleasing, tho’ dreadful.” 

— An early explorer of West Virginia, noting in his journal about the geography of the region

If you live, work, or have roots in West Virginia, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume that you possess an understanding of the culture. There are so many aspects of the state to love and appreciate.  However, I want to point out five contradictions about West Virginia which hold the state back.

West Virginians are largely pro-life, but don’t seem to support children

A sizable portion of West Virginians believe abortion should not be legally permissible, and I would contend that this, by itself, is a defensible position.  But the contradiction here lies in the refusal to support a number of policies which benefit children.  One of West Virginia’s most significant problems is its inability, or unwillingness, to care for its children.  

In a previous post, I referenced the critical issues of student homelessness, grandparents raising grandchildren, and an inadequate foster care system.  These amount to a crisis situation and I cannot reconcile how its citizens take a hard pro-life position when they see such a dire need for the care of children.

This is a terrifying graph to think about for West Virginians

The most recent data demonstrates that more than 10,000 students in West Virginia are classified as homeless (about 4% of the entire student population).  As of this month’s figures, foster parents house approximately 6,500 children, including almost 2,000 labeled as in ‘therapeutic foster care.’ 

Social scientists have created a metric to better assess the well-being of children, a test to gauge adverse childhood experiences, or ‘ACE.’  It consists of 10 yes or no questions which help researchers understand the impact of traumas on a child as they become adults.  Anyone with a score of ‘4’ or more on the ACE test is:

  • 12 times more likely to attempt suicide 
  • 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs which are injected
  • 7 times more likely to become an alcoholic 
  • 2 times more likely to become a smoker 

The effects of childhood trauma increase the risk for a myriad of other poor behavioral choices, backed by peer reviewed studies.

In West Virginia, 13.8% of adults reported they had a childhood with four or more ACEs. Additionally, West Virginia ranks 7th in the nation for percentage of people with an ACE score of 2 or greater (a staggering 25%).  Though speculation, I don’t find it too difficult to believe that the children of today are any better off than previous generations.

West Virginians seem to despise the government in Washington, D.C., but benefit from the federal government as much as anyone in the nation

West Virginians believe that policies from the nation’s capital should always be met with the most stringent skepticism.  Citizens always imagine a far away government official as the cause of their problems.  

A portion of the disdain towards Washington is rooted in the never ending political drama between Democrats and Republicans.  The GOP has consistently presented a message that Democrats, particularly at the federal level, have waged a ‘war on coal,’ will deprive people of religious freedoms, and want to rob citizens of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  The truthfulness of the message doesn’t matter because perception is reality here.

Somewhat related is the fascination people in this state have for the Confederacy and its rebellion during the Civil War.  Any small town has its share of Confederate battle flags.  

When the West Side community of Charleston moved to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, it met a bizarre level of resistance.  Even if I wanted to overlook the fact that black children make up the overwhelming majority of students attending the school, a school in West Virginia named for a Confederate general is ridiculous.  The birth of West Virginia occurred during the Civil War — on the side of the Union.  (Start a conversation about removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the Capitol grounds and watch citizens lose their minds.)  

Strangely, this hatred of the federal government is made in conjunction with the fact that our state benefits more from federal tax dollars than almost every other state in the union.  If you see the late Senator Robert Byrd’s name on a bridge, school, institution, or any other building, there’s a good chance he secured the federal funds for it.  No one objected, and for good reason.  

West Virginia ranks 9th in federal grant beneficiaries among the states, and this doesn’t include the entire gamut individualized programs.  In regard to those programs:

Per capita, West Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation in recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as ‘food stamps’), receiving almost $400,000,000 annually for recipients.

Currently, 28% of West Virginia’s citizens receive Medicaid or Children’s Heath Insurance (CHIPs).

For West Virginians receiving Medicare, the annual expenditure per beneficiary is an average of slightly above $10,000.  If someone would point out that Medicare is a program which we all pay into, consider that most recipients will draw out more in benefits than they ever pay into the program. 

It’s ironic that so many West Virginians are more than happy to reap the benefits of federal tax dollars while constantly degrading the government officials who enacted these policies and the bureaucratic employees who make sure those checks find their way to the mailboxes of West Virginians (and millions of Americans also).

West Virginians love coal, though it has plagued the people

The state has been one of the leading producers of coal, yet the individuals who benefitted the most from this important natural resource are not West Virginians.  Coal mining in the mid-20th century until now offered West Virginians a high paying salary they could earn as straight out of high school.  But the state as a whole forgot the bloody road that coal miners walked to secure those high paying jobs in the first place.  How many West Virginians toiled in mines for little pay or were the victims of violence from the mine owners?  Moreover, even after the coal miners secured better wages and working conditions, the balance of power still leaned heavily towards the mine owners.  Those mine owners reaped disproportionate financial benefits while the men who labored in coal mines literally worked themselves into an early grave.

How many men died from mining disasters which could have been prevented?  If that wasn’t enough of an issue, how many men suffered from physical injuries which dramatically reduced the quality of their lives?  This doesn’t account for the incidences of black lung, a particularly dreadful disease miners develop from years of working in close contact with coal dust.  Black lung dramatically reduces quality of life, has no cure, and is fatal.  

I respect the people who work in coal mines.  That job requires significant physical strength and mental fortitude, to go into the mines day after day for years.  But what I see as the great contradiction is the love affair the state has with coal when these miners have never received what they deserve.

You don’t need nearly as many employees to get that coal out of the ground

The mine owners do not reinvest in the communities, they fight any attempted increases on the coal severance tax, and most importantly, the bulk of them are absentee landlords.  For over a century, we have allowed corporate interests outside of the state to treat West Virginia like a third world country, using our natural resources and labor in exchange for scraps.

Historically, mine owners have little regard for the well being of their employees.  The mechanization of coal mines have taken more jobs from the hands of our people than any politician could dare to dream. They also have cannibalized bankrupted other coal corporations of their assets, while taking on none of their liabilities, notably the pensions of retired coal miners.

The nation’s trend towards natural gas and renewable energy will diminish the demand for coal.  The world will still need coal in short term and long term for the United States, but not nearly as much as it once did. 

Why does the state love coal when it has taken so much from the people and given so little in return?

West Virginians want economic development, but they do not wish to change

Politicians have long touted diversification of West Virginia’s economy as a priority in light of the decline of coal.  Yes, the state has done tremendous work in developing an amazing tourism industry.  However, there are other ways in which West Virginia can develop a more progressive attitude towards economic development.

West Virginia’s agricultural production has long been a strong component of the economy.  Adding marijuana to the agricultural output is projected to add nearly $190 million in revenue, increasing agricultural revenue by 25%.  Of course, the state’s tax coffers will benefit also, which can be used in a variety of ways to benefit the state.  The dangers of alcohol outweigh those of marijuana and the state has no problem allowing its sale. 

In addition to changes in agricultural, West Virginians do not value higher education, though studies demonstrate that a college education translates to increased lifetime earnings.  Only 20.3% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree, the lowest percentage of any state in the nation. Bringing economic development includes valuing the education, which West Virginia does not.

Many West Virginians shun colleges as ‘elitist’ and they don’t respect the value of higher education.  State government continues to decrease funding of  institutions of higher education, including the Promise Scholarship. This demonstrates the priorities of West Virginia.  (Despite a skepticism of higher education, West Virginians have little problem turning out in large numbers for football and basketball games in Morgantown and Huntington.)

We care about moral values, but continually elect poor examples of those values

Often, our moral values are connected to our religious beliefs, and few states are as religious as West Virginia.  Christianity, specifically an evangelical brand of the faith, advocates that definitive right and wrong standards exist in the world.  A majority of West Virginians also believe this to be true.  Yet, the citizens here continue to elect individuals who flagrantly violate these standards.  West Virginia’s government currently contains some odd characters with significant failings —  including John Mandt, Mike Maroney, and Joe Jeffries — but they are only recent iterations of the political problems here. 

For those old enough to remember, former Governor Arch Moore’s third term in office led to guilty pleas for five felonies in federal court, including tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Moore’s first two terms were no easier, with an indictment for extortion and constant rumors about misuse of campaign funds.  The allegations and guilty pleas never seemed to put a dent in Moore’s popularity with West Virginians.

In 2004, the FBI rooted out several corrupt long-time officials in Logan County through a sting operation which yielded nine convictions in vote buying schemes.  The practice of vote buying or knowledge of corruption was not regarded as a secret in this area.

Former Governor Bob Wise was involved in a sex scandal in 2003.  In 2016, the mayor of Clay liked a Facebook post referring to then First Lady Michelle Obama as an ‘ape in heels.’  Oh, and the public official in Clay County who made the Facebook post?  A year later she pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from FEMA devoted to flood relief in the area. 

I know every state has its dullards and buffoons who somehow win elections, but if we care about the integrity of our state and moral values, shouldn’t we make morality the ‘floor’ for government officials?  The people in West Virginia have fallen into the trap of placing their preferred political party before values.

If West Virginia is going to talk about these things, it’s time to be about them.  We should take care of our children, and teach them that valuing certain moral traits means living them out to the best of our ability.  We don’t have to love coal or see it as the economic basis for the future.  The federal government isn’t the enemy,  and there are times when change isn’t such a bad thing.

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