Charleston—There’s a joke circulating among Syrians who fled the brutal conflict devastating their country to the quiet mountains of West Virginia: “We escaped the lethal chemicals in Syria only for them to follow us here.” Of course, what’s happening in West Virginia right now is no laughing matter. But how could the refugees not be reminded of their decimated homeland after finding themselves, along with 300,000 other West Virginians, without access to potable water? Unfortunately, West Virginia is no stranger to having its living conditions compared to those in developing countries.
Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington authored his incisive depiction of poverty in the United States, aptly titled The Other America. The bestselling book—named one of the ten most influential books of the twentieth century by Time—is widely believed to have inspired John F. Kennedy’s commitment to addressing the dire conditions of the “invisible poor,” whom Harrington noted generally lived in rural or inner-city isolation, making them easier to ignore. After Kennedy’s assassination, this commitment was passed on to his successor, culminating in Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty.”
West Virginia’s problems figured prominently in Harrington’s narrative. In one evocative passage, he describes the paradox of the state’s beauty and its grave socioeconomic conditions.“Driving through this area, particularly in the spring or the fall, one perceives the loveliness, the openness, the high hills, streams, and lush growth.” However, “beauty can be a mask for ugliness,” and “this is what happens in the Appalachians.”
This ugliness masked by supreme natural beauty has not disappeared in the fifty years since Harrington wrote these words. As a lifelong West Virginian who was raised among the southern coalfields of this state, I’ve witnessed firsthand the misery that permeates life here. “This irony is deep,” Harrington writes, “for everything that turns the landscape into an idyll for the urban traveler conspires to hold the people down. They suffer terribly at the hands of this beauty.” The suffering has largely come at the hands of the coal industry, which for the past century has purchased the blind loyalty of the state’s most influential institutions as it exploited the population for labor in criminally dangerous conditions, all while destroying the pristine grandeur of the environment to extract the abundant coal below the surface.
By almost any measure, West Virginia’s population suffers from some of the worst socioeconomic conditions in the country, and there is no divorcing these realities from the coal industry’s domination of the state. Currently, the Mountain State’s population is the least college-educated in the country, with less than 20 percent of its adult population possessing a bachelor’s degree. As anyone who attended school in this state can attest, the widespread notion that one can easily obtain a well-paying coal-mining job with little to no education continues to be a significant contributor to this trend. I will never forget the feeling of despair that overcame me as a high school student observing my class size dwindling year after year, as more of my classmates decided that dropping out was their best option.