LAMENT IN THE MOUNTAINS - Poverty Keeps On Giving


COMMENT By Bob Weaver (July 2008)

This article is based on government statistics, my involvement with the Appalachian Regional Commission, as a member of the Calhoun County Commission, Challenge WV's fight for good community-based education, my experiences with environmentalists like Robert Kennedy, Jr., and my first-hand observations of life in our mountains.

Appalachia and West Virginia have long been troubled, giving up bountiful coal, natural gas, timber and more recently water to support the nation's development since 1900.

In more recent years, the resources have become part of the globalized market, purchased and sold by multi-national corporations.

The state has yielded its natural wealth to be left behind as one of the most poverty-stricken state's in America.

The next time you see one of those commercials about how energy benefits West Virginians, you might recuse yourself to a quiet spot for some serious meditation.

West Virginia has dropped from 48th to 49th in per capita income in the latest rankings from the US Commerce Department.

Calhoun County, among four or five other WV counties, is among the 100 poorest counties in America.

The Appalachian Regional Commission counties with higher rates of poverty are generally concentrated in West Virginia, Kentucky and southern Ohio.

Child poverty in Appalachia increased slightly between 1989 and 1995, following a national pattern, with West Virginia's Kids Count reporting the disturbing statistics annually.

Young children in Appalachia have experienced the greatest increases in poverty, compared with older children and the general population.

Over forty-five years ago, on the eve of his presidential campaign, Sen. John Kennedy journeyed on a tour bus into the inner reaches of West Virginia.

He found families living in shacks with no running water or indoor toilets, dirt roads and a landscape left wasted, filthy and poisoned by years of opportunistic extractors.

Powerful landlords meted out jobs in return for obedience.

Following a hundred years of exploitation, external control and state government cooperation, West Virginia remains economically dependent and democratically stunted.

Around the edges of West Virginia, you'll find a few counties that are robust. Some of them share the nation's rates of education, health care, and income.

An in-depth study by the Columbus Dispatch about 10 years ago showed that the Appalachian Regional Commission, created by Lyndon B. Johnson, spent most of their poverty money on regions that were already developed, had jobs and infrastructure.

The ARC, during a meeting in Kentucky, said they tried to spend their money on areas that showed greater promise or return on the investment.

The money certainly was not spent in the poorest and more needy counties.

Battles in the Mountain State continue over ownership of resources, including the gas royalty fiasco where corporations now want to dip into the meager royalty ownership of holders, charging back their production costs.

The corporations lost a court battle over their take-over, but they're taking the issue to the US Supreme Court. (Later, they decided to settle)

West Virginians still may own much of the the hilly surface, but the coal below belongs to others. People saw their land ripped open or scraped away in search of coal, a quick and easy way of extraction through mountaintop removal.

Held hostage are the few remaining coal "miners" who need the jobs left behind.

West Virginia counties relying on natural resource exploitation have fared poorly, despite the boom.

As today's prices of coal and natural gas skyrocket, the state falls far behind the nation.

Pockets of the greatest natural wealth have the greatest poverty.

A passionate war is waged by environmentalists over the extraction, which grossly disturbs the states mountains and streams.

Last year, environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr. looked into a southern WV stream and inquired about fishing.

He was told the stream has been unable to support living creatures for many years.

Kennedy asked "Do your people not care?"

A retired miner responded, "I guess not. We're so use to it."

"You know this battle is about life itself, for our children and their children," Kennedy said.

More than 100 Appalachian counties still fall far below national norms for income, employment and education, and rise above average poverty levels.

The region needs child care services and public transportation infrastructure for growing numbers of female-headed families. These 100 distressed counties lack college-educated citizens.

Back in the 1960s Appalachia's problem was perceived to be isolation, portrayed in a story in the Saturday Evening Post.

Many believe the state's most critical shortage is its lack of democratic institutions. Vote buying and political boss control is still evident in many southern WV counties.

Local governments in some WV counties are still corrupt, from the county commissions to boards of education.

A hundred years of external ownership and concentrated power have left the region's citizens without the institutions they need to ensure their children safe and successful lives.

The state's school officials embarked on a massive consolidation program that was supposed to save taxpayers money and improve curriculum, putting students on long bus rides across tortuous mountains.

It has been devastating to what most Mountaineers treasure, their communities, with research showing that children do better in small schools.

Much of WV still needs water, sewer systems and modern roads.

The lack of jobs persists, made worse by the shifting of most blue collar jobs abroad through globalization.

While government money has been thrown at poverty, what is really needed is to create opportunity, better education and jobs.

"The High Price of Poverty for Children of the South," authored by Arloc Sherman, says the child poverty rate for all US children in families jumped nearly 50 percent between 1969 and 1996-from 14 to 20 percent.

In Calhoun County WV it has been near 30%.

Although the high child poverty rates once unique to the South have now spread to other sections of the country, the South continues to have most of the nation's worst pockets of poverty.

The current energy crisis that is driving food and retail prices upward is painting a gloomy future for the region's families - the so-called middle class, are now the working poor.

Poverty causes poor health, hunger and poor diet for children, with some relief given to the poorest through the food stamp program.

Health insurance for the working poor is un-affordable.

About 80% of Calhoun's kids are eligible for free or reduced lunch at public schools. Schools have helped fill the nutrition gap, with breakfast and lunch available.

Many WV citizens blame the welfare mentality, which has some validity. But the poverty issue goes far beyond the class of people who expect a free ride.

Washington seems oblivious to these core issues, giving lip service to possible solutions, focusing the electorate on "talking points" manufactured by politicians to get elected.

Does this seem like a pretty dismal picture?

It is, particularly with the greatest economic recession descending.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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