West Virginia is a paradoxical place that seems to operate countercyclically to the rest of America and sometimes counterintuitively as well, making nonsense of conventional methods for understanding how people, societies, and economies work.
How can a state that has fewer working adults than any other also have an unemployment rate that’s below the national average? Why does West Virginia’s economy sometimes, however briefly, seem comparatively prosperous, but only when the economies of all the other states are in decline? Why, if the coal industry is the economic engine that drives West Virginia’s economy, are the places where coal is mined among the most impoverished in the state and nation? In fact, why does the coal industry, which comprises only 6% of the state’s economy, loom so large in the politics and perceptions of West Virginia?
Why do the people of West Virginia cling so determinedly to coal mining jobs which may sustain them financially, but which also destroy them sometimes suddenly in apocalyptic explosions and sometimes slowly and agonizingly through black lung disease and broken bodies? Why do we blow the tops off of our mountains?
Why does West Virginia’s latest putative economic savior, the natural gas industry, grow robustly while having little measurable impact on jobs or local economies? Why, when West Virginia’s extractive industries prosper, don’t West Virginia residents prosper as well?
Why in a state that relies more than any other on the federal government for incomes and healthcare do political leaders ridicule Washington for its profligacy and rage against perceived federal intrusions? Why when statistically West Virginia stands to gain more from Obamacare than any other state, are state leaders at best ambivalent about taking advantage of the opportunity? Why does West Virginia have the highest rate of death by drug overdose in the nation?
Why when violent crime has been plunging for more than a decade in the rest of America has it been going up in West Virginia? Why, when in the aftermath of mass shootings that have made the rest of America more receptive to gun control measures, is West Virginia’s legislature furiously crafting legislation to vacate gun control laws and increase gun ownership and use?
Why in a state that has the lowest average level of educational attainment in America is West Virginia cutting funding for higher education even as it sits on a billion dollars in a rainy day fund and cuts business taxes? Why when West Virginians elected senators Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd to a combined fourteen consecutive terms, are they suddenly poised to replace Rockefeller with a candidate who is politically and philosophically his and Byrd’s diametric opposite?
Why is a state whose white voters gave then candidate Barack Obama a larger share of their votes than did white voters in twenty other states sometimes called the most racist place in America?
Why do West Virginia residents, who are personally unpretentious and self-effacing, become enraged at the mere mention of the word, “hillbilly” and rise, with Senator Joe Manchin in the forefront, to smite any personality foolish enough to tell a West Virginia joke or television executive foolish enough to propose a West Virginia-based reality TV show?
Questions about West Virginia are endless – endless in number and endless in what they can reveal not just about the state and its people, but about humanity. In this book Sean O'Leary attempts to answer just a few.