Donald Trump lost the 2016 Election, racking up about the same vote percentage as previous losers John McCain and Michael Dukakis. He’s in the White House despite his remarkable unpopularity thanks to oddities in our electoral system. Trump managed to squeak out wins in a few Midwest industrial states, granting him just enough electoral college heft to nullify the popular will.
He barely topped 50% in places like Georgia and Texas, and he failed to win majorities in Arizona, Florida and Utah. But there’s one place that loves Trump. West Virginia was his second-strongest state, giving him almost 70% of the vote. So how’s that working out?
Rick Wilson likes to say that everything Trump touches dies, which is pretty nearly a measurable fact. West Virginia is no exception.
A traditionally Democratic state, it’s also a state that’s almost universally white and consistently poor. As Democrats came to embrace civil rights, West Virginia steadily lost its Democratic tilt. Bill Clinton managed a narrow win here in 1996, but that was the end of state’s love for Democratic Presidential candidates.
Still, a slick-talking, New York financial criminal should have been a tough sell among the gritty blue collar voters of West Virginia. He rolled in, promising them everything, including a renaissance in “beautiful, clean coal.” They slurped that Kool-Aid, begging for more. You know how this story ends, right?
Today, West Virginia’s unemployment rate remains 49th out of 50 (congratulations, Alaska). They remain America’s heroin king, our national leader in opioid deaths yet again, with rates continuing to rise. California logs roughly five opioid deaths per year per 100,000 citizens. Mississippi’s rate is an even more worrying 6.4. West Virginia’s opioid death rate is 50! Only Ohio comes close.
Despite promises of help from Trump, West Virginia’s mining industry continued to shrink in 2018, but that had little impact on state’s economy. Mining retains a sort of legendary status in the state despite its economic insignificance. The legend of the West Virginia coal industry is promoted to sustain the political power of coal mine owners. In a state with about 1.75 million people there are about 10,000 coal miners. About 20,000 people work in the industry in any capacity. The coal industry matters in West Virginia not because of its value to workers or voters, but because it’s source of capital for the state’s few wealthy people.
What do people do for money in West Virginia? Almost one in five of them are on welfare and almost a third are on Medicaid. West Virginia has the nation’s lowest employment-to-population ratio, with only half of the state’s employment age population holding down a job.
The largest single block of the state’s 700K or so workers are employed by the government (155K). That’s one of the few sectors of any size to see employment growth last year. The bulk of the remainder of the state’s jobs are in health care, tourism, and low-wage services, pretty much the standard economic blueprint of a poor state that’s getting poorer. Income stagnation has been a problem nationally in recent decades, but West Virginia stands out. It still lags behind its 2007 peak median income, which wasn’t that great at the time. The state ranks 48th in income, thanks to trailing perennial under-achievers, Louisiana and Mississippi. West Virginia has the lowest educational attainment in the US.
Trump has promised the Mountaineers a wall to keep out the brown people and they love it, but what is the wall protecting them from? The unemployment rate in Mexico is 20% lower than in West Virginia. Forget about opioids, the death rate in Mexico from any form of overdose is less than 1 per 100,000, almost a hundred times lower than West Virginia and many times lower than any US state. The drugs killing West Virginias are made in the US by major corporations. You can’t wall off the Sackler Family.
Needless to say, the Trump agenda has accomplished nothing. West Virginia is one of the only places in the country where the poverty rate has continued to climb even at the peak of a decade-long recovery. Policies limiting access to food stamps and health care have had a painful impact on the state. West Virginia remains a white utopia, free from the scourge of illegal immigrants, or frankly any immigrants at all. Unauthorized immigrants make up .2% of West Virginia’s population, helping to account for the state’s economic stagnation. In our wealthiest state, California, more than a quarter of residents are foreign born. It should come as no surprise that West Virginia has the country’s smallest percentage of foreign born residents. West Virginia is a MAGA utopia of universal whiteness. Naturally, it is also miserably poor.
Post-election interviews with Mountain State voters were painful, not worth a link. It feels terrible to resent impoverished, struggling people. Enormous rhetorical energy has been invested in efforts to lay some defensible rationale over West Virginians’ abhorrent political choices. The reality is cruel, ugly and frightening.
A cycle of degradation accompanies poverty. Let poverty grind away on a group of a people over a period of time, and that cycle spreads and deepens down into the soul. Poverty cuts off access to education and growth. As it persists, a kind of cultural debt sets in, bigger than a lifetime. Among those it doesn’t kill, poverty produces a hardened cynicism often so powerful as to be self-defeating. No one can advance in life without faith, without a sense of vision and hope. Poverty degrades faith in the future, undermines trust, and ultimately destroys one’s own self-image.
Poverty is bad. Let it take root anywhere and its poison is hard to contain, spreading out to destroy good things far and wide. Poverty runs deep in West Virginia.
For as long as Europeans have ranged across this continent, West Virginia and nearby regions have been a haven of last resort. Narrow valleys between blunted hills offered safety and isolation in exchange for persistent poverty. West Virginia has always been a byword for poverty. It was poor before coal. It was poor, filthy, polluted and dangerous at the peak of the coal industry. Unlike places like Mississippi and Alabama, rich, easy lands made poor by greed and abuse, West Virginia suffers from a geography that blunts progress.
You might ask why anyone stays? Thing is, they aren’t staying. States sometimes lose population over a year or two, but West Virginia is in a class by itself in terms of long term population loss. Its growth has lagged the country for decades, but in recent years it has led the country in population loss. Its population peaked in 1950, and has been declining consistently since 1980.
This kind of selective population loss can morph into a poverty acceleration machine. Those who manage to survive the state’s living conditions, emerging with the strength and education to prosper, take their gains and run. What’s left behind is a pool of people ever sicker, more damaged, and less capable as time passes. You end up with the people seen in TV interviews of Trump voters, people desperate for some kind of relief, lacking the exposure, education or general wherewithal to help themselves through the democratic process. Poverty is bad.
Geography is not destiny. Vermont and New Hampshire sit on similar terrain without the same depth of human suffering. There are ways to build a healthy society on difficult land.
The economic formula most likely to improve West Virginia’s economy is the same formula used everywhere else to produce economic development. Tax wealthy rentiers to fund education. Build healthy transportation infrastructure to facilitate communications and trade. Collaborate to construct and protect a clean, responsible government capable of protecting citizens and property, even against the abuses of powerful people. And develop a welfare state powerful enough to interrupt the cycle of persistent poverty. Along the way welcome as many immigrants as you can recruit to bring new energy, enthusiasm and hope. Visit Minnesota or Massachusetts for a clinic on this formula and its results.
Everything Trump touches, dies. West Virginia is taking that metaphor a little too literally as the impact of the Trump era deepens the state’s pain. However, new hope is dawning thanks to the activism of the state’s teachers.
A statewide strike by teachers in 2018 forced the Republican legislature to compromise. The billionaire Republican coal heir who runs the state couldn’t muster the votes to force the teachers back to work. Out of that strike emerged a new infrastructure of resistance. The state’s voters may have learned that no outside savior is coming. Building networks of democratic activism may provide a bulwark against the promises of political charlatans. As we all tally the lessons of the Trump Era, there may yet be hope for West Virginia.