Lately I’ve been working on a research project about a perennial West Virginia topic: why our state is so poor. There’s been a lot of discussion about that lately in this political year.
But even though times are hard now, this region of the country has been known for poverty for a century or more. And many explanations have been given, some better, some worse.
I’ve been surprised to find that the most insightful — and prophetic — words on the subject are 132 years old. And they came from an official state Tax Commission, of all places.
The commission was charged with the mission to “collect and report whatever information will enable the Legislature to legislate intelligently and with safety upon the subjects calculated to advance the development of the State.”
And, amazingly, they actually did just that. Apparently, the practice of telling the powerful what they want to hear wasn’t yet in fashion.
The year 1884 was fairly early in West Virginia’s industrialization, but there was a great deal of economic activity and a feverish grab for land, minerals and other natural resources. The Commission had the foresight to recognize the difference between growth and real development. It warned of the dangers to the state if the ownership and control of wealth would pass to out-of-state interests:
“It is a mistake to suppose that this State is prospering as much as she ought to do. A State is prospering when, and only when, those who permanently reside within her limits are increasing in wealth; a state is prospering only when her citizens are accumulating property. A state is unprosperous when the wealth is being absorbed by a few individuals; a state is doubly unprosperous when the property is rapidly passing from her present population of home people into the hands of non-residents.”
(Golly, that would be terrible.)
The Commission cautioned that appearances could be deceptive. New economic activity could provide the illusion of progress, but economic growth isn’t necessarily the same as real development that benefits people who live here.
They put it this way: “If the entire enterprise is owned by non-residents, if all the profits belong to persons who reside abroad, if those who are permanently identified with the locality do not participate in the harvest, the State is going backwards.”
It even provided an example that could have come from today’s newspaper:
“… Some years ago a non-resident corporation opened a mine in the county of ***; all the coal in several hundred acres was taken out and when the treasure was exhausted the property was abandoned, and that locality is today poorer and worse off than it would have been if that coal had never been touched; that foreign corporation carried away the entire harvest and all the profit; the permanent or home wealth was diminished, not increased ...”
They went on to predict more:
“The history of this locality will be repeated in many places in this State, which are now pointed out, by thoughtless persons, as illustrations of our prosperity, and those who reflect see today what those who do not reflect will surely witness in the near future — Our State despoiled of her wealth and her resident population poor, helpless, and despondent.”
They even laid out exactly how the despoiling of the state happened then and still happens today:
“When Private Interest conflicts with Patriotism, Private Interest will prevail, and these agents have a private interest far greater than their concern for the public welfare. Besides this, the people have been educated to believe that our immediate development must be obtained at any cost and regardless of sacrifice …”
Once citizens could be induced to swallow that line of thinking, anyone who “would dare to raise a warning voice against this worse than reckless and worse than foolish sacrifice of our local wealth is not only ostracized from all participation in public affairs, but is actually excluded from all the accustomed avenues to the public ear.”
They warned that then, as now, schemes to enrich private interests at public expense would gain an easy hearing, while critical voices would be marginalized:
“Whatever information or argument will cajole the people into advancing the money making schemes of individuals is published in the papers, proclaimed on the hustings and advocated by men employed to manufacture public opinion. On the other hand every fact calculated to acquaint the people with the true condition of affairs is frequently carefully suppressed by influential journals and by those who are recognized as successful politicians.”
The final paragraphs are powerful predictions of the future and sad reminders of the road not taken.
“The wealth of this State is immense; the development of this wealth will earn vast private fortunes far beyond the dreams even of a modem Croesus; the question is, whether this vast wealth shall belong to persons who live here and who are permanently identified with the future of West Virginia, or whether it shall pass into the hands of persons who do not live here and who care nothing for our State except to pocket the treasures which lie buried in our hills?”
“If the people of West Virginia can be roused to an appreciation of the situation we ourselves will gather this harvest now ripe on the lands inherited from our ancestors; on the other hand, if the people are not roused to an understanding of the situation in less than ten years this vast wealth will have passed from our present population into the hands of non-residents, and West Virginia will be almost like Ireland and her history will be like that of Poland.”
It’s too bad this warning wasn’t heeded. We’re paying dearly for it now. Incredibly, some politicians are prescribing more of the same as a remedy for our current woes.
Rick Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.