Dying young in West Virginia

Some of the finest people I have known live in southern West Virginia. Almost three years after leaving there, my wife and I not only remember fondly the neighbors and friends we knew in those mountain communities; we also continue to try to live up to values that we learned from them through those relationships and daily interactions. So it’s heartbreaking to read a headline like this one, published on Monday:

McDowell Men Have Shortest Life Expectancy, Women Second Shortest in U.S.

That’s McDowell County it’s referring to, at the southern tip of the state, which is just down the road a few miles from where we lived before our 2011 move to central Minnesota. Though such stats on McDowell are nothing new now, there was a time, more than a half century ago, when McDowell was thriving, a national leader in coal production. That means the folks there provided, through dangerous and back-breaking work, the power that fueled the rapid post-WWII economic and technological development of which all of us in the U.S. are still beneficiaries.

Nowadays… well, the WV Public Broadcasting article at the link above provides some context to the headline:

McDowell County has suffered major job loss and mass exodus of people after many coal mines closed. In 1950 there were close to 100,000 people. The population has plunged to about 21,000 in 2012.

The median household income in McDowell County between 2007-2011 was about $22,000; far less than the national median of about $53,000 and even West Virginia’s median, $40,000.

Circumstances in neighboring Mingo County, where I lived, are nearly as bad. (In the important report cited in the article, McDowell County ranks 55th out of 55 counties in the state; Mingo is at 53. Number 54, Wyoming County, is also a neighbor. They are the poorest counties in a very poor state.)

The reasons for the sad stats are many, and they are frustratingly intertwined. But among the lessons is a stark illustration of the reality of structures of injustice and the far-reaching impacts they can have. Indeed, some of those structures and their impacts have a lot to do with why my wife and I and our kids are not still there, despite our great enjoyment of the place and its people. (We left largely in the interests of our kids’ educations.)

We were not natives to area, but as the population statistics above suggest, many who were have also moved elsewhere. Indeed, there were occasions during my days there that I thought it might make the most sense for the entire population to just pick up and leave the region behind, lock, stock, and barrel. I’m not sure anyone could live there long without considering that option at least fleetingly at times, in the moments of greatest frustration. But then the richness of the place — the strength and big-heartedness of the people and the beauty and power of the land — comes back to startle you again, day in and day out, and you can’t believe that such an idea had ever crossed your mind.

For problems so long-standing and intractable, solutions are obviously hard to come by. But if you’re looking for a way to make a difference, Christian Help of Mingo County does an admirable job of helping people survive the poverty that holds such a power over the region, while ABLE Families offers effective support to people who seek, one by one and family by family, to work their way out of that poverty or avoid it altogether. The Appalachian Catholic Worker is still another local program well worth support. I know each program well. Each is grassroots, working on shoestrings at a direct and one-to-one level. God bless them and the people they serve.

[On this topic, see my Commonweal article from earlier this year, “‘A Judgment upon Us All’: Poverty in Appalachia.”]

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