Living in West Virginia feels like living on another planet at times. It's a strange place with a wide variety of people in all socioeconomic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. If one constant exists in West Virginia, it would be conflict. This state has struggled -- through its tumultuous birth, pillaging of its resources, and abuse of its people.
Conflict continues today as the Mountain State struggles to adapt to a constantly changing nation and world. West Virginia has so many positive qualities, but the state clearly has issues it needs to address. If West Virginia wants to redefine itself and eliminate that which keeps us backward, I have five suggestions about what must happen for a better future.
Not convinced West Virginia needs significant changes? Let me provide some alarming statistics for your consideration, comparing McDowell County, the state, and the nation:
McDowell Co. WV US
Population, % change -19.1% 2.5% 9.7%
Persons under 5 years, % 6.1% 5.8% 6.9%
Persons under 18, % 21.8% 21.2% 24.3%
Persons 65 over, % 15.9% 15.8% 12.9%
High school graduates, 60.1% 81.6% 84.6%
Bachelor's degree or higher 5.7% 17.1% 27.5%
Median value of housing units $30,500 $91,400 $185,400
Per capita income in past 12 months $12,585 $20,891 $27,041
Median household income $22.222 $37,423 $50,221
Persons below poverty level % 40.8% 17.8% 14.3%
All statistics are from the 2005-2009 time period, and available online, via The United States Census Bureau
West Virginia has problems: those with young people are leaving, our population growth is significantly slower than the rest of the nation, our education levels are lagging, poverty is high and our financial assets are lacking. In the case of McDowell County, this is heartbreaking.
The first two suggestions actually coincide. For West Virginia to change, I know this much: change must be in the form of a grassroots effort. A top-down format of having government dictate change will not provide what we require. The people will have to organize and take action for themselves.
The history of West Virginia tells us it has been done before. In the early 20th century, coal miners could only tolerate so much abuse and they took action, forming labor unions to change their future. History also tells us that real change is never easy. Individuals or groups always stands to lose from altering the status quo, and that creates resistance.
West Virginians are going to have to be sick of the current situation before they can change. People tend to take action when circumstances become unbearable and perhaps West Virginians haven't reached this level yet.
I also believe that money must not be an issue. I'm saying West Virginia must be willing to spend whatever is needed to help solve problems. A major obstacle to achieving any goal or finishing any project is the lack of adequate funding.
Let me be clear -- I am not suggesting we tax citizens any more than they already are. But, I am calling on individuals and businesses to sacrifice time, energy, money and other resources to make the upbuilding of West Virginia a priority. Again, looking back at my first suggestion, this will take a grassroots effort. It will take people making a conscious effort to make sacrifices.
Are large companies willing to surrender some profit for the greater good? Will people go to their local schools, churches, charities, towns, etc. to volunteer? How bad do we really want this state to succeed?
We cannot lay all our problems at the feet of government, but we can ask sacrifices of them as well. Reduce the budget in non-essential areas and be willing to make the tough political choices that might end their own political careers.
West Virginians also seem to be concerned with the overall population and the lack of growth. The state is definitely seeing a loss in population and it needs to be addressed. However, the focus is in the wrong place. Instead of attempting to lure in people from other states, we must focus on the retention of West Virginians. We are victim to what is commonly referred to as 'brain drain', where the best of our citizens leave the state for a better opportunity.
Those who grow up in West Virginia are far more likely to have the emotional attachment that will keep them here. People who leave don't necessarily want go elsewhere. But if poor economic conditions exist for a family, they will be consistently driven away.
Allowing the most able-bodied and best minds to leave creates the economic and population problems we currently have. Though I cannot state this with any certainty, I suspect businesses that provide quality paying jobs would be more likely to invest in West Virginia if the talent were already here. Additionally, the issue of a dwindling population would resolve itself if we could retain our people (hint: it's not senior citizens who are leaving the state).
Another important part of making a better West Virginia is that we must realize education is absolutely essential. In the past, West Virginians could rely on industrial jobs that paid well enough to provide for a family. Those days are gone. They aren't coming back and we keep refusing to believe it. Huntington and Weirton's steel plants have almost been completely wiped out. The Kanawha Valley has seen a huge reduction in its chemical plants. And coal mining produces more coal than ever -- with only a fraction of the labor needed from years past.
Please don't misunderstand -- not every person will go to a four-year traditional college, nor should they. But in today's world, a post-secondary education of some kind is a must and it isn't happening. In the two largest cities in West Virginia (Charleston and Huntington), examine what type of economic development has occurred in your lifetime.
Look no further than the Pullman Square building project in Huntington. I am grateful that this development took place as part of revitalizing downtown, but the businesses there aren't providing high paying jobs. The current lineup of tenants includes: Starbucks, Empire Books, Five Guys Burgers & Fries, Coldstone Creamery, Edible Arrangements, Marquee Cinemas, Max & Erma's, The Game Stop, Benny's Cheesesteak, a Thai restaraunt, The Different Twist (the pretzel place), a women's shoe store and a women's clothing store. What do they have in common? These are part of the service industry, they tend to have students as employees, and probably have a signifcantly high turnover.
Do you know who the largest private employer in the state is? If you guessed Wal-Mart, you are correct.
Finally, the last change that needs to be made -- West Virginia must break its addiction to government assistance. Social welfare is always a difficult subject to broach and understandably so. Many hard-working people receive a form of financial assistance from the state and they deserve a helping hand. The abuse of the system, however, is undeniable.
This addiction, stifles the lives of thousands of West Virginians who could be productive members of society. The system of providing government assistance has a place in our society, but not for those who would abuse it. West Virginia cannot afford to use valuable resources on those who are able to work, but refuse to do so. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in West Virginia accounted for more than $3 million in expenditures in 2009, while Food Stamp recipients totaled over $400 million in expenditures.1
The United States Government Accountability Office recently issued a report noting that over $2.2 billion worth of food stamp overpayments were made to recipients nationwide, with $400 million of those overpayments due to fraud.2 Though these programs are largely funded by the federal government, abuse of welfare programs is still a problem locally.
A recent study of West Virginia noted that substance abuse within the state was correlated with welfare fraud. Those who cheat government programs are often connected with drugs as users or traffickers. This not only takes funds away from hard working West Virginians, but it ends up costing the taxpayers millions of dollars annually in providing treatment, housing, etc. of drug users.3
We must take action and make sacrifices. We must find ways to keep our young people in these mountains and valleys. We must educate ourselves to a higher level. We must stop those who would cheat government programs.
Making progress as a society is difficult. And it becomes even more of a challenge when change has to take place in West Virginia. We cling to our traditional values and ways of life. Despite our love for the ways of the old, creating a better future means moving forward and we have avoided that for too long. This much is clear: we must do something.
1"The Financial Burden of Substance Abuse in West Virginia: The Welfare System"
2"SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM: Payment Errors and Trafficking Have Declined, but Challenges Remain," United States Government Accountability Office, July 28, 2010.
3"The Financial Burden ..."