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West Virginia’s Bargain With The Devil

West Virginia’s Bargain With The Devil

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.


  1. Trivial point, but you might want to correct “Today, West Virginia’s unemployment rate remains 49th out of 50” to “employment rate remains 49th out of 50” or “unemployment rate remains 2nd out of 50.” Otherwise, thanks for another great article.

  2. EJ

    Here are some English language links I enjoyed, that I hope others might enjoy too. Some of this is political, other is just about our culture as a species (which is to say, political but in a different way.)

    The Age of Anxiety, by Talia Levin:

    About Face, by Nate Powell:

    Tucker Carlson’s War on the Upper Class is a Masterpiece of Misdirection, by Parker Molloy:

    The Communal Mind, by Patricia Lockwood:

    Home Coming: Lagos, by Dipo Faloyin:

  3. I think it’s fruitful to look at how we — both as a nation and as individuals — react to rural white vs urban black poverty. The great conservative vs liberal debate about poverty is whether it’s a failure of individual character or a failure of “the system”. To be fair to your position, I think you do recognize both issues, the “cycle of poverty” along with the poor public policies that plague W.Va. And even as a liberal, I think you’re right: both are important components. We might disagree on the relative importance of one or the other, but there’s no harm in attacking both.

    But most commentators haven’t been as thoughtful. When it comes to urban black poverty, conservatives blame character faults like laziness, a “thug” mentality, etc. and refuse to believe that govt programs will help. Similarly, drug use in urban minority areas is dismissed as a crime issue, and not as a medical issue, with very little compassion for the people caught up in its grip. But when it comes to rural white poverty, conservatives have glossed over the character deficiencies of West Virginians and other Trump supporters, and talk about things like the coal mines leaving as the source of the problem (as if inner cities in the 80s and 90s weren’t decimated by the de-industrialization of our economy). And white opioid abuse is treated with far more compassion than the crack epidemic in black America ever was. Why is a white person abusing fentanyl a sign of despair while a black person smoking crack is a sign of a morally irredeemable criminal?

    Liberals have done the reverse. Focusing on Trump voters’ racism and other character flaws while discounting the very real system and governance failures they face. And more than a few urban liberals have gleefully looked at the opioid epidemic as some kind of divine retribution for rural whites voting for Republicans.

    Now I do recognize one argument conservatives keep making: rural white poverty is associated with much less violent crime than urban minority poverty. But that’s not entirely true. As cities have gotten safer and rural areas poorer, the lines are now crossing: rural areas are now catching up in violent crime with urban areas:

    So that argument is rapidly going away, revealing the true reason for the difference in our national response: pure and simple racism. At the end of the day, I personally believe the solutions to both rural and urban poverty, black or white, is the same, and remarkably similar to what you prescribe: improved governance, increased opportunity, and a sustained investment of attention and resources to break the cycle of poverty that really does leave lasting damage. But putting together a broad coalition to implement such a policy will involve confronting the latent racism / hatred-of-the-other in both the liberal and conservative camps.

    P.S. I’ve always been impressed by the story of Jay Rockefeller. I always thought it was curious that a scion of one of the wealthiest families in America, and associated with NY and the Republican party, would come to be a Democratic senator from W.Va. Turns out, he volunteered for the peace corps after college, then the VISTA program under Johnson, and continued to spend time in Appalachia, and was so appalled by the poverty of the area, that he decided to dedicate his life to improving it. Even when he became Senator, despite his blue-blood upbringing, he remained a real advocate for poor people throughout the country, with an actual first-hand knowledge of it that very few politicians, even ones with much more humble beginnings, actually possess.

  4. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
    “Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that within a couple of days there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
    “The Sad fact is that I never heard Mr. Trump say anything in private the led me to believe he loved our nation or wanted to make it better. In fact, he did the opposite”

  5. Some researchers think they’ve found a single consistent difference between liberals and conservatives: their propensity to feel physical disgust.

    “numerous studies have found that high levels of sensitivity to disgust tend to go hand in hand with a ‘conservative ethos.'”

    “The brains of liberals and conservatives reacted in wildly different ways to repulsive pictures: Both groups reacted, but different brain networks were stimulated. Just by looking at the subjects’ neural responses, in fact, Montague could predict with more than 95 percent accuracy whether they were liberal or conservative.”

    “The researchers eventually extended studies of this kind to 121 countries and found that disgust sensitivity correlated with a conservative ethos basically everywhere there were sufficient data for analysis. As Pizarro, Inbar, and the other authors of the study write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, this result suggests that disgust sensitivity ‘is related to conservatism across a wide variety of cultures, geographic regions and political systems.'”

    The above quotes are from

    1. So much for the 3 second theory (-: Seriously, I was struck by the linkage between those who close circles to protect against threats including people who are different than them. Anti-Vaxer’s are often found among those who homeschool and people with other
      phobias. I have read that trump is a germiphobe. I confess that I am a liberal whose disgust meter is on pretty high alert these days but it’s not good old dirt motivating me.

  6. Sorry, slightly off topic. but I just read this post from Heath Mayo who would fall into the never trump conservative column who posted “blue print for a post-trump gop”.

    His first point on is to recognize the unequal opportunities in the education system and a vow to fix that issue so that everybody can have a chance again at the American dream. A few paragraphs later he talks about the issue of America locking too many people up and not trying to get them back into the work space. And some comments about the need to retrain workers instead of promising them to bring their jobs back.

    I don’t even know what’s so “conservative” about his ideas … to be honest, if you told me some common sense democrat wrote this, I would believe it too. If he added a comment about the limit of the “free market” when it comes to health care and the reality of climate change, he would have my vote.

    Why am I posting this here … because it reminds me a bit of the old goplifer posts. Chris I love your new posts too, but I really enjoyed reading posts from a GOP member who had very reasonable policy ideas and it felt like it should be possible to get over the partisan BS and just talk about the issues. Now that was back in 2013/2014 and I thought maybe we’ll get lucky and get a Republican front runner for 2016 that promotes these ideas. I would have voted Republican for the first time …

    Well we all know how that went … I really would love to go back to reading policy posts from Chris instead of having to deal with the daily insanity that trump creates and getting extremely upset that the GOP minions on capitol hill have sold their souls to get reelected and seat some conservative judges.

    1. And I would like to see some common sense and hardball from Democrats. This Huff piece nails it for me. I cannot even remember good conservative policies – it’s been so long ago…but I think it is crucial Democrats take back the presidency in 2020 and the Senate if we can in order to save our democracy.

      I heard an interesting comment on Nicole Wallace’s “Deadline White House” today that I have actually thought of myself. That is, the chief reason trump wants to run and win in 2020 is to avoid being prosecuted by SDNY as he is only protected from indictment while being president. In another four years he could even replace the entire staff at SDNY, so time’s on his side if he wins in 2020. This makes total sense to me. Regardless, read this Huffpost article and see if it doesn’t make sense.

      1. I had missed that article, thanks for linking to it. It makes total sense to me. I concur that one of the most important things that is necessary to do is to reform American Democracy. HR 1 has some very good ideas and is a good starting point, but it does not go far enough. Partially because there is only so much that can be accomplished legislatively. The Supreme Court needs to be reformed. I like the idea of staggered 18 year terms with a single term limitation. That requires a constitutional amendment.

        The Senate needs reform, beyond elimination of the filibuster. Since introducing an element of senatorial representation based on population is not possible under the US Constitution, some other means of getting the Senate more cognizant of the desires of the urban populations needs to be developed. The only idea I have thought of is somehow dispersing the high tech growth to more regional centers. That is partially why NYC rejecting Amazon, I thought was helpful. Other means of addressing the collapse of rural areas, need to be developed. Bringing true broadband internet access to rural areas, would be helpful in that regard.

        Likewise, the concentration of power in corporations needs to be reformed. That means repealing Citizens United and the concept that corporations are citizens. They must be considered to be limited specifically by charters. Their governance must be reformed. One element of that would entail having representation by labor on their boards. Elizabeth Warner’s proposal in that regard includes some very good ideas. Certainly the nexus between corporations and politicians must be broken.

        These are only some of the reforms that are required to eliminate the “corrupt oligarchy administered by a decadent aristocracy” that is the US at present and return power to the people.

  7. “The economic formula most likely to improve West Virginia’s economy is the same formula used everywhere else to produce economic development.”

    Public infrastructure that makes commerce efficient and leisure inexpensive. Lots of small and medium sized businesses and few really big ones. Anti-fraud enforcement in the private sector and anti-corruption enforcement in the public sector. Low levels of private debt so that all the income isn’t drained out of the economy as interest. A strong middle class and small tails on the distribution curve.

      1. I’m thinking of that scumbag the FBI just caught. I’d like to do an experiment with these White supremacist types. I’m thinking we should give them a reservation somewhere, with no huge geographic handicap, where they can have a 100% White society, and we can see how they do. WV ought to be the spoiler alert, but some have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.

      2. Another thing about this latest white nationalist – it is amazing that our FBI is still functional on such matters. They have been so demoralized and stripped of leadership that I am in awe that they continue. Guess that’s why they’re such “tough people” who go where others won’t and keep us safe. Not saying there aren’t bad apples but damn they’ve had a rough time (as have all intelligence under “donnie two-scoops” (-;

      3. The functionality of the FBI despite the efforts of “Donnie two-scoops” is a great example of the quality, dedication and professionalism not only of the staff of the FBI but of much of the Federal Civil Service. In my opinion that dedication and professionalism will enable the federal government to reconstitute its effectiveness quickly once we get leadership that values effective government again. Another agency where that is at play is the EPA. There are still dedicated professionals there. Despite the best efforts of “two-scoops” in trying to destroy it. I’m not trying to minimize the damage he has done. I’m just saying that there is still a legacy of professionalism around which people can coalesce. Of course that legacy of professionalism can only last so long!

        On the flip side we have the examples of ICE and CBP which were rogue agencies when they transitioned into their present configurations. Despite efforts made to professionalize them, that rogue legacy remained and fully reconstituted itself very quickly under Donnie.

  8. “Still, a slick-talking, New York financial criminal should have been a tough sell among the gritty blue collar voters of West Virginia.”

    What astounds me even more is that convicted felon Don Blankenship, who got coal miners killed with his unethical business practices, received any votes outside of friends/family in his failed Senate bid.

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