Fifty years ago, President Johnson began a War on Poverty. Our state was one battleground, largely because of mechanization, which dramatically cut the number of coal mining jobs. As a part of his war, Johnson formed the Appalachian Regional Commission. Although President Trump recently signed the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which adds funds to the ARC in 2017 comparable to those in 2016, the President’s 2018 budget would eliminate the ARC entirely. The ARC is vital and active today, with a new emphasis on growing local healthy foods as both a means to ending our high unemployment rates and as a way to combat many of our horrific health statistics.
We can trace the foundation of our current state of poverty to the development of the railroads here during the 1880s. Businessmen used this conduit to funnel both timber and coal out of state, with the resulting formation of “company towns” in isolated areas with rich natural resources. Workers were recruited to move into these areas, and many of their descendants remain there today, although the companies and jobs that brought them there are long gone. By 1948, 125,000 coal mining jobs were present in West Virginia. Many of these miners lost their jobs in the 1960s after the UMWA struck a deal with coal mine operators to increase mechanization. The mechanization, along with a decline in demand for coal, has caused the loss of 7,000 coal mining jobs since 2000. Combine this with another 1,500 lost in heavy construction, and add other high-paying jobs lost to get a total of 11,200 good jobs lost in the 21st century.
There has been a modest increase of 3,700 poor-paying jobs during this period, especially in food service. If a food service employee is working full time, and most aren’t allowed to do that by the employers, they would make only $13,000 per year. For a single mother with even one child, this is poverty level by federal guidelines.
Another problem in West Virginia is that we have the lowest level of workforce participation of any state for prime-age adults, 25 to 54. For the record, that means there are 193,000 prime-age adults in West Virginia who are not employed nor looking for work. Much of this is caused by the belief, reinforced through personal experience and the anecdotal stories of friends and family, that there are no jobs worth finding. Another agency created during the War on Poverty was the Community Action Agency, now called the Community Action Partnership (CAP). Many of us locally are familiar with Mountain CAP for its weatherization and day care programs here in Upshur. While there is no mention I can find of CAP by name in the 2018 budget, the weatherization program is cut. This program helps with the costs of heating many of homes belonging to those living in poverty, helping their limited incomes to be stretched farther. The elimination of the Community Services Block Grant, which funnels federal funds through the Community Action Partnerships, would almost certainly end Mountain CAP as we know it today.
Other programs that the proposed Trump budget would cut include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Legal Services Corporation (which funds legal support for those of low income), Americorps (which has been a boon to Appalachia), senior programs and the Chemical Safety Board. These entities are part of the network of programs that lend education, support and research so that events like the Freedom Industries spill into the Elk River don’t happen without data to protect people. All this, as this proposed budget would fatten up the Defense Department by $30-plus billion.
There are many roads to fighting poverty in our state, and I acknowledge that the federal government is only one piece of the puzzle. Strong community activism and good moral values also play an important role. It is not okay for West Virginians to sit back and expect that the federal government will bail us out of every bad circumstance, but we can also acknowledge that outside factors, such as a lack of sustainable, high-paying jobs, leave us in a tenuous position. And we can engage in better planning for the future. We can and must insist that our representatives in Washington and Charleston acknowledge and look for ways to overcome the hardships our people face when trying to rise up out of poverty. Where federal and state help falls short, we must use our own resources, our time and money, to improve the way of life for all our fellow Mountaineers. As the War on Poverty continues to rage on in our area, we should stay involved and alert to ways that we can help, and bring ourselves even closer to “Almost Heaven.”