A column by Mike Myer, executive editor of The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — If the federal government really wanted to help people in West Virginia’s southern coalfields, Washington would buy their homes. That’s all that is keeping some of the folks hurt by President Barack Obama’s war on coal from pulling up stakes and leaving the Mountain State.
Many of those able to leave already have gone. During the past five years, the population of seven southern counties where mining is important has plummeted by 14,853 people, according to the Census Bureau. The counties are Boone, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Raleigh and Wyoming.
McDowell County, where coal is just about all there is to the economy, has lost 10 percent of its residents. In 2010, 22,113 people lived there. Now, it’s 19,835.
A year or so ago, I listened to a fellow from out of state discussing the West Virginia economy. There are jobs for people with skills such as those possessed by coal miners, he said. They just require laid-off miners to leave the state and go where work is available.
He’d never seen people as reluctant to leave home as West Virginians, he added.
Well, there are lots of reasons for that. Not least among them is that our state is part of many of the people who live here. As I’ve mentioned previously, a Mountaineer who lived in New York city for several years told me that when she met new people, even those who’d only lived there for awhile, most of them would tell her they were from somewhere in that vicinity,
Almost invariably, though, when she asked someone who’d come from here where they were from, they’d reply “West Virginia.” That says something about us as a people.
But when you have a family to feed, loving the place you live doesn’t matter. Other considerations hold you here.
How’d you like to be a McDowell County resident trying to relocate? Anyone want to buy a nice house? Anyone?
People don’t buy homes in economically depressed places – and West Virginia’s southern coalfields are just that. Many people who want to leave can’t afford it.
They need money to pack up the family and belongings and transport them, enough to find lodgings in the new location, and some cash to cover living expenses for awhile. They do not need a mortgage they can’t pay off.
Buying many of the coalfield homes wouldn’t be terribly expensive, at least in federal government terms. The median value of homes in McDowell County is just $38,100 (compared to $100,200 for the state as a whole). In other words, for around $50 million, the feds could buy out 1,300 laid-off miners.
An outrageous idea? More outrageous than dropping billions of dollars on retraining, infrastructure, etc., programs that will help what, a couple of hundred West Virginians?
Face it, folks: The federal government got West Virginia into much of the fix we’re in – but it isn’t going to get us out of it.
Washington may have just two options: Do something radical to help southern West Virginians, or prepare to support more of them on “the dole.”
Myer can be reached at: [email protected]