For generations, out-of-state corporations used Southern West Virginia as a colony, bleeding away coal wealth, paying few taxes and doing little to improve the region. Miner jobs were eliminated by machines when possible. When coal reserves were exhausted, the out-of-state owners departed, leaving behind hardship.
McDowell County is a supreme example. In 1950 it had 100,000 people -- but today it has 22,000. An Associated Press report said:
"As the mines that produced $1 billion in coal grew quieter, so did the cash registers. Infrastructure became a luxury. Unemployment rushed in. Alcohol followed. Drugs weren't far behind."
Now McDowell has America's worst rate of painkiller overdose deaths -- averaging 12 per month. One-tenth of teen girls have babies, the state's worst rate.
"Seventy-two percent of [public school] students live in a home where neither parent is working," the AP analysis said. "About 46 percent of students live in a home without a biological parent; many of them are in jail for drugs.... Many of the students have never sat in a dentist's chair to have their teeth cleaned. There is no central water system, so fluoride is not readily available.... Twenty-two percent of the adult population in the county lacks basic literacy skills.... Some children come to school and they've never held a book."
Over the decades, various "war on poverty" crusades attempted to break McDowell's cycle of despair, with little success. Now the American Federation of Teachers is spearheading a mammoth new effort called Reconnecting McDowell. It has 120 partner agencies, groups and businesses.
This all-out effort will use McDowell schools as community betterment centers where adults learn to read, children get health care, drug counseling occurs, food is provided, job training and computer skills are spotlighted, etc.
Earnest commitment by Reconnecting McDowell helped induce the state Board of Education on Wednesday to give McDowell control of its county school system again, after the failed schools spent 12 years under state seizure.
McDowell's people deserve better lives. West Virginia is watching and hoping that the major new drive will begin to begin to resuscitate the county left helpless after coal faded.