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Diane Mufson: Can McDowell County really be revitalized?

May. 21, 2013 @ 10:45 PM

Most of us want to believe that problems can be surmounted if we work diligently or throw enough money at them. Unfortunately, that is not always true.

Recently, an article in this newspaper, "In rural W.Va., schools rethink their role," made it clear that McDowell County, W.Va., has massive problems. The question: Can this county really be revitalized?

The article by Philip Elliott of The Associated Press stressed that many companies and groups are banding together to create "Reconnecting McDowell," a program trying to do just about everything for everyone in this area. It is a major effort to stem McDowell's tide of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, dental decay and alcohol and drug abuse.

Reconnecting McDowell is attributed to a conversation between Gayle Manchin, while she was first lady of the state, and Randi Weingarten, the national president of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers). Many similar programs have come and gone. Again, the real question: Can McDowell County really be revitalized or will the county simply be a place populated by "ghost towns"?

Ghost towns exist in West Virginia (Thurmond may be one of the best known) and every other state in the nation. They are places that time, the economy, reason for formation, geography and other factors cause a once thriving community to become a lifeless area with few or no residents.

Census figures say that McDowell County had nearly 100,000 residents in the mid 20th Century. People who lived in Welch, the county seat, remember it as a vibrant and successful place. By 1970, the county had lost half of its population and in 2010 only about 22,000 people lived there.

Coal was the reason for McDowell's development. The mines brought new people and businesses to the area. All was well as long as many coal miners were needed. Technology, the economy and ecology have changed that. Fewer people are needed nowadays to mine coal and, whether Appalachia likes it or not, other western states, particularly Wyoming, can and do produce more and cheaper coal.

The statistics for the residents of McDowell County are depressing. "72 percent of the students live in a home where neither parent is working ... 46 percent live in a home without a biological parent; many parents are in jail for drugs."

"McDowell County has the highest death rate for prescription drug overdoses in the country, leads the state in the teen birth rate and 22 percent of the adult population ... lacks basic literacy skills." There's more distressing news regarding the number of people needing treatment for drug addiction, the lack of dental care and the fact that "Of the 350 teaching positions ... 51 were not filled at the start of the school year." Teachers willing to work in the area have had so much difficulty finding decent places to live that the "Reconnecting McDowell" group wants to build apartments for more than 20 teachers.

The plan's goals are impressive. They hope to turn McDowell County into a place where health and education are available for all. But healthy, educated people need jobs and businesses. There is no indication that industries are seeking to relocate to McDowell County where travel is a challenge, much of the population has left, drug problems are epidemic and literacy is low.

For the record, I have visited much of southern West Virginia but not McDowell County. Nevertheless, the distressing facts and figures are clear. They lead to the big question: Can McDowell County really be revitalized or will it become a ghost county?

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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