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Finding Economic Resilience In Appalachian And Western Coal Communities

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Kara Lofton/ West Virginia Public Broadcast
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.

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we are listening back to a show that originally aired in 2018. It’s about poverty. Appalachia is not the only place in America where some people live in extreme poverty. But several communities here are among the poorest.

Poverty is an issue that we’re sure to hear even more about in the coming months, perhaps years, as our country grapples with the effects of the recession we’re currently facing as a result of COVID-19.

Poverty Memoir

Jeannette Walls grew up poor in America. She wrote about it in her bestselling memoir "The Glass Castle." Walls 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. We’ll listen back to an interview with Walls from 2017, just before the movie based on her book debuted 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, and central Africa. He has also visited Appalachia. 

After a 2017 trip, he spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about a report on how the United States treats its most vulnerable people. The U.N. published a report that concludes 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty.

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Economic Connections to Coal

Appalachia’s reliance on coal and other extractive industries has affected the region’s economy. One example is land ownership. Historically, coal and timber companies have owned a large amount of the land in central Appalachia. “Central Appalachia's coal industry boomed in large part because, by suppressing workers' wages,” said Gwynn Guilford, a reporter for Quartz, a business news site. “Much of the industry's growth came out of the pockets of mining households.”  Roxy Todd spoke with Guilford about her 2018 article called “The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal.”

wvpublicnews · Finding Economic Resilience In Appalachian and Western Coal Communities

Lessons From Coal Communities In the West

What can Appalachia learn from post-coal economies in the Western U.S.? We’ll hear from 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 has reported on economic development in post-coal communities. When we first spoke with her back in 2018, she was a reporter with High Country News. She now works for Colorado Public Radio. 

Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy Todd. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Andrea Billups is our executive producer. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. We’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @InAppalachia.

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Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.