Paula Jean Swearengin (Unofficial)
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 rise and fall.
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, like 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, like 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 nation, it also helped fund public budgets at the state and local levels. Like other Appalachian areas that developed around coal, West Virginia's 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. The West Virginia communities that grew around the coal industry are now "among the poorest communities in the region." For example, in Clay County, the correlation between the coal industry and the state's economy is profound. The county's population dropped from nearly 10,000 in 2017 to 8,508 in 2019, a decline typically attributed to the closure of most of its largest coal companies. The median income is only $35,875 ($26,062 less than the median income of $61,937 across the entire United States). In a county where, according to the 2010 census, one-fourth of the population already lived below the poverty line, the toll of coal's decline has been felt more acutely in recent years: in 2019, its only major grocery store closed, leaving many of the county's elderly and/or impoverished residents in the lurch; decreased tax revenue forced the layoff of county employees and the shutdown of after-school programs and buses; and, entire families lost their one source of income and the ability to "have something for our kids in the future." The public school system, which has historically relied heavily on coal industry revenue and tax dollars, has experienced a steady decline alongside the coal industry's decline. As unemployed coal workers seek opportunities elsewhere, West Virginia's student population has declined, leading to decreased public funding in districts that have already had to close or combine schools due a drop in enrollment. In 2018, public school teachers and personnel went on strike as state and local budgets stagnated or decreased, resulting in a lack of pay raises and skyrocketing out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Lacking the tax income needed for the pay raises demanded by the strikers, the state had to tap into its surplus funds to get the workers back into schools. Just a third of the way into the state's 2018-2019 fiscal year, West Virginia's revenue was down $33 million - a loss attributed to falling revenue from fossil fuel severance taxes, the completion of natural gas projects that provided a temporary bump in revenue, and the decline in the coal industry in general.
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