August 08, 2006


Caption: A view from Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak.

It is one of the consistent ironies of history that regions richest in natural resources often have the poorest people.

El Cabrero recently returned from a short visit to Vermont, another beautiful mountain state. The contrast between West Virginia and Vermont is always striking to me.

Aside from wealthy flatlanders snapping up old farms and real estate, Vermont is mostly owned and controlled by…Vermonters.

In West Virginia’s colonial economy, out of state corporations own vast tracts of land and exploit it and the people ruthlessly. They also dominate state politics. Now they are permanently altering its natural terrain through mountaintop removal mining practices that extract wealth while creating fewer and fewer jobs. And, as the world was reminded earlier this year, too many miners still die on the job.

Vermont reminds me of the Shire, home of the happy hobbits, whereas the beloved home state seems like an embattled encampment on the edges of Mordor where there are nearly always Dark Lords seeking total power and control (although they already have almost everything).

West Virginia talks about being “open for business,” which often means boarded up main street windows and big box retail sprawl, usually paid for in part by state tax breaks for out of state corporations. Vermont really is open for local businesses. A drive through just about any small town there will find thriving locally owned stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, bed and breakfasts, crafts, restaurants, and other businesses.

Political leaders in Vermont see their mountainous terrain as an asset, whereas those here often seem to see ours as something to be eliminated as quickly as possible.

Vermont provides virtually universal health care for children and is moving to cover adults. West Virginia’s current leadership is targeting and punishing Medicaid recipients and wants to postpone expanded health coverage for children to pay for more tax breaks for corporations.

Last year’s Census report on Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States shows a contrast:

*Three year average household income (2002-2004) was $45,692 in Vermont, compared with $32,589 in West Virginia;

*Three year average poverty rates were 8.8 percent in Vermont, compared to 16.1 percent in West Virginia;

*The three year average for people without health insurance was 10.5 percent in Vermont, compared with 15.9 percent in West Virginia.

Vermont doesn’t have a colonial economy.

Author Jeff Goddell writes unflatteringly in the recent book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future,

…if coal mining were the sure-fire ticket to wealth and prosperity that many in the industry claim, West Virginians would be dancing on gold-paved streets. Over the past 150 years or so, more than 13 billion tons of coal have been carted out of the Mountain State. What do West Virginians have to show for it? The lowest median household income in the nation, a literacy rate in the southern coalfields that’s about the same as Kabul’s, and a generation of young people who are abandoning their home state to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

OK, the Kabul thing was over the top, but the writer has a point.



Anne Johnson said...

God forbid they find coal in Vermont.

Anonymous said...

Time to face the reality that it's more than one generation of young people leaving, it's getting onto the third now--and it isn't all the young people, just the brightest and the most ambitious. One generation you can handle, but by now the damage is very measurable in average IQ and the social climate.

deepspring said...

We can agree to disagree on some of your blogs, but...THIS is right on target. WOULD that the State of West Virginia would actually levy a REAL tax on coal, we would have services second to none -- provided by the State. I once wrote in an Op/Ed piece in the Daily Athenaeum (WVU's student newspaper) that the West Virginia government is more corrupt than that of Saigon (some of you will remember Viet Nam).
This came after I was sent to Charleston to cover the State Legislature for the paper. I had been put in the wrong room at the Daniel Boone Hotel (they put me in a coal company lobbyist's room). When I looked in the closet I found CASES of expensive whiskey, REAL CUBAN cigars, a wardrobe worth literally thousands of dollars (in 1971 money!!), Alligator shoes...the list could go on and on. The hotel management told me this was a lobbyist's room, and they were terribly sorry for putting me in the wrong room.

This guy wasn't there, but I'm betting he was getting someone in the legislature liquored up somewhere.

Like many others, my wife and I took our daughter and left the state in pursuit of fortune (or at least a good paying job). But it's a good place to come back to for a semi least that's what we thought. Now, we're struggling to keep our small business afloat and getting nothing but the run-around and grief from the State. Sure, West Virginia is open for business...the coal business...the timber business...the WalMart business...or any other business that will put big bucks in the right pockets in Charleston.

I think I stand by my editorial from 35 years ago.

deepspring said...

Oh yeah...another thing...

I used to spend summers in Vermont. You're right -- in part. We loved it...until we MOVED there. Then we found the Vermonters didn't seem to welcome us any more. As long as you're going up there to spend your money and LEAVE, you're fine. Otherwise, you're from "Down Country" -- usually said with disdain. It's a great place to visit, but -- believe me-- you don't want to live there.