Katie Ragan: Misunderstanding West Virginia

I’ve underestimated West Virginia, and I’m sorry.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are offering West Virginians a fair plan, and it’s time the country understands that.

In many ways, West Virginia has become the symbol of “middle America.”

The coal industry, the state’s economic engine for the past century, has collapsed, taking with it tens of thousands of jobs. Opioid addiction rates are among the highest in the country and education outcomes are among the lowest. Poverty pervades, claiming roughly one in every five households according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Support for Donald Trump is deep and widespread.

Until recently, this was all I knew of West Virginia. From afar, it was difficult to understand why West Virginia and surrounding Appalachian states hadn’t accepted that the coal business is unlikely to return to its former glory, and refocused economic development efforts elsewhere.

As an economist by training, I found the resistance of labor to relocate out of the Appalachian region confounding. Intellectually, I understood the pain involved in leaving one’s home. But surely this was outweighed by the pain of struggling in a region in decline. Why wouldn’t workers move to find the work that clearly wasn’t coming back to their own communities?

It was against this backdrop that I and a dozen fellow graduate students from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government came to West Virginia to see the state for ourselves.

We harbored no delusions about the optics of our visit. There was a risk we’d be received as elitists descending from Cambridge to sample a taste of coal country hardships. But there was a much more human reason for coming, too. As future policymakers, it seemed important to make up our own minds about West Virginia before parroting ill-fitting prescriptions from D.C. or New York or Boston.

Instead, perhaps surprisingly, we were embraced and befriended. And over the course of four days, I witnessed a sense of place among West Virginians that I have not encountered anywhere else in the world.

One retired miner in Raleigh County told me of the plot of land he calls his home, and how three generations before him called that same land home, too. He relayed with pride stories from his days in the mines, doing back-breaking but honest, critical work for a country and world thirsty for the energy the coal provided.

Two city mayors tearfully described the opioid epidemic plaguing their communities, and their own helplessness to make the system changes needed to prevent yet another generation being lost to addiction.

A man in his early 20s described deciding to run for elected office in his home county, because, for him, there was nowhere he’d rather serve than in the place that gave him everything.

Mingo County, his home county, is among the poorest in the state. Nine in 10 residents will never complete education beyond the high school level. And over the past 10 years, 6,500 prescription pain pills per resident have been shipped to Williamson, the county’s main town. And yet, this young man spoke with unabashed pride about his county and its people’s tireless resilience in the face of hardship.

In conversation after conversation, I began to understand the challenge of having to choose. Choose between the possibility that work will return here, or an insecure job there. Choose between land your family has occupied for generations here, or unknown land there. Choose to stick around to make things better here, or give up to try things there.

As political parties gear up for the 2020 election, it seems that neither Republicans nor Democrats are offering a fair plan for West Virginia. The Republican mantra is that a release of Washington’s thumb from the scale will unleash more mining and energy investment in the state, bringing back jobs and prosperity.

The Democrats parade retraining programs as the salvation for “middle America,” as though every out-of-work coal miner should now relish the prospect of learning to code or becoming an HVAC technician in a state where there are no HVAC jobs in sight.

Both propositions are an insult to West Virginians. Republicans promise an impossible return to a glorified past. Democrats promise an uncomfortable transition to an uncertain future. Neither party seems to want to deal with a painful present.

No wonder polling shows that the two most popular candidates for 2020 are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump and Sanders may seem diametrically opposed on substance, but if what you’re looking for is a candidate whose message is “screw you” to the system that has shafted you and your family for decades, they couldn’t be more alike.

So, West Virginia, I’m sorry for being so wrong about you. Your commitment to your roots and collective resilience in the face of disappointment after disappointment should be a reminder to us all of the grit of the American spirit. Here’s to hoping that your resilience soon becomes unnecessary. It’s about time.

Katie Ragan is a joint MPP and MBA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School.

Funerals for Sunday, February 16, 2020

Atkins, Linda - 3 p.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Call, James - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Hankins, Sara - 1 p.m., McGhee-Handley Funeral Home, West Hamlin.

Hensley, Joshua - 2 p.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

Jackson, Jeffrey - 6 p.m., Lantz Funeral Home, Buckeye.

Jobe, Joe - 2:30 p.m., Sunset Memorial Park Mausoleum Chapel, South Charleston.

Johnson, Freda - 2 p.m., Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens, Glasgow.

Ratcliff, James - 3 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.