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Changing Coal Communities and Overcoming Poverty in Appalachia

Kara Lofton/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Teresa and Jennings Harrison stand outside of the Local Union 1503 building in Boone County. Jennings Harrison worked in a coal mine for 36 years

Jeannette Walls grew up poor in America. She wrote about it in her memoir "The Glass Castle," which has remained on the New York Times bestsellers list for more than eight years. She spent most of her childhood west of the Mississippi River, but her father, who was originally from West Virginia, eventually brought her family back to McDowell County, where she lived for four years. In this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll listen back to an interview Jessica Lilly did with Walls in 2017, just before the movie inspired by her book was released in theaters. 

Extreme Poverty in America

There are pockets of the United States where families face conditions comparable to a third-world country. Law professor Philip Alston is a United Nations expert on extreme poverty, and reports on places of pervasive poverty, like Haiti, south Asia, central Africa -- and just recently he was here in Appalachia.  Shortly after his 2017 trip here, he spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about a report he’s compiling on how the United States treats its most vulnerable people. After this interview was originally recorded, the U.N. published a report that concludes 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty.

Economic Connections to Coal

In this episode we’ll also explore how Appalachia’s reliance on coal and other extractive industries have affected our region’s economy.

One example is land ownership. Historically, coal and timber companies have owned a large amount of the land in central Appalachia. But as reporter Gwynn Guilford told WVPB's Roxy Todd in an interview: “Those people don’t have any stake in the communities there. They don’t have any reason to reinvest in the human capital and public services and goods."

Lessons From Coal Communities Out West

Also, what can Appalachia learn from post-coal economies out West? We’ll talk with a reporter in Colorado about how former coal communities are trying to rebuild their local economies.

“They can live relatively cheaply compared with our urban areas,” said Kate Schimel, who lives in Paonia, Colorado. “There are trails or restaurants that can be really appealing to young people. And in a few towns out West, that has really turned into young families coming and staying.” Schimel is a reporter with High Country News and has reported on economic development in post-coal communities for the Solutions Journalism Network.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy ToddJesse Wright is our executive producer. Molly Born edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. We’d love to hear from you. Send us tweet @InAppalachia.


Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.