West Virginia's Economy Has Long Been Dependent on One Industry: Coal
Generations of West Virginians have worked in the coal industry and lived in communities that relied almost completely on coal mining. The rise—and fall—of West Virginia's economy correlates directly to the coal industry's boom and subsequent bust.
Since the 19th century, West Virginia has been coal country. The industry came to dominate many of the state's counties and was responsible for much of the state's early development in related industries, such as transportation and construction. Entire communities sprouted up around coal mines; in fact, because most mines were far from towns, coal companies often started their own towns - complete with inexpensive homes, company stores, and churches. This led to "a unique way of life" for miners and their families, who relied on their employers for everything from an income to the very place they called home to where they bought basic goods. In the 1940s and 1950s —often considered coal's "heyday"—more than 100,000 West Virginians were employed in coal mines. (Coal mining employment peaked in the 1940s, with more than 125,000 West Virginians employed by the industry.) Thousands more were employed in related industries, such as mechanics and transportation, or in industries made possible by the coal industry, like retail and hospitality. For decades, coal in West Virginia has been "the most economically significant, politically powerful and socially influential industry in the state." Throughout the history of coal mining in West Virginia, about 81% of all its counties were home to regular coal-mining operations. Not only did coal provide jobs and energy for an entire country, it also helped fund public budgets at the state and local levels. Like other Appalachian areas that developed around coal, West Virginia has been at the mercy of that industry. Since its 1950s heyday, the discovery of coal outside of Appalachia and the mechanization of coal mining work have caused the industry's decline in places like West Virginia. As mines shuttered and companies declared bankruptcy, West Virginia's economy has, in turn, also taken a hit. In 2019, fewer than 14,000 West Virginians worked in the coal mines (representing a 40% job loss since 2008), and the state suffered a nearly $2.3 billion loss in export sales of coal between 2018 and 2019.
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