The scandal isn't that so many people rely on these programs; rather it is that they need them to start with. Such programs are only partial compensation for declining job quality. As is often the case, the costs of low-wage jobs are socialized while the profits remain private.
People have coped with these seismic changes in many ways, positive and negative. Many people left the state. Our population peaked at over 2 million in 1950. According to one estimate, it would have been over 2,6 million with the normal increase of population if no one had moved in or out. The current census estimate is 1,855,000.
Some people left the workforce, because of disability or seeking early retirement. Others worked several jobs or lived in households where more women entered the labor force. This can be a positive step but it can lead to what has been called a "two-income trap," in which both adult earners are working full time but still not making ends meet. They are then worse off than single-income families of more prosperous times.
On the positive side, over this period West Virginians have increased their levels of educational attainment. On the other hand, many -- including new college graduates -- have higher levels of debt.
Finally, some people have coped with a changing landscape in more negative ways, by participation in the underground or informal economy, including illegal activities. It is probably no accident that some of the hardest hit counties have major substance abuse problems -- or that our prison population grew dramatically in the years in which good jobs declined.
That's the bad news. The good news is that our state's economy once supported a thriving middle class and may do so again. In fact, we have recently taken several positive steps in that direction. In this year alone, state leaders have acted to expand health coverage, combat substance abuse and prison overcrowding, expand early childhood education, and improve child nutrition.
There is also a new ground game as ordinary citizens across the state are building people power to work for a better future through the Our Children Our Future campaign to end child poverty in West Virginia.
There is a lot more to be done to broaden the middle and raise the bottom. Given the uncertainties of economies based on resource extraction, we should learn from our past and create a Future Fund from severance taxes. This should be invested and the interest from the fund could provide a permanent source of wealth from non-renewable resources.
We need to maintain and improve investments in physical and human infrastructure -- including ensuring the affordability of higher and vocational education; protect the quality of life, including our natural beauty; and embrace economic diversity and sustainability.
Finally, we need to rebuild our sense of community. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," recently put it, "The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically reduced sense of 'we.'"
To thrive in an uncertain future, we need to realize that democracy isn't a spectator sport. It is -- or needs to become -- a verb.
Wilson is director of the American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project.