Garret Matthews says he is not a parachuting journalist who did a drive-by assessment of McDowell County.
He grew up in nearby western Virginia with relatives in the southern coalfields. He worked for years at the Bluefield newspaper, and more recently, he began volunteering and making charitable gifts in McDowell County.
So when a friend gave him a tour of the town of War, and let him know the stories behind the drug-addicted zombies walking down the streets, he felt compelled to write an essay about it.
“I wrote what I saw,” he said. “If you just wake up day after day with no hope and no job, it’s easy to sink into despair. And sadly, a lot of people in southern West Virginia have fallen into that.”
Matthews’s essay was criticized by former First Lady and state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin.
Manchin has helped lead a revitalization effort called “Reconnecting McDowell.” She points to several improving statistics, such as a decrease in the drop-out rate from 28 percent to 14 percent in just five years, according to Kids Count.
“It made me very sad, on the one hand, and then, it made me angry, so I had a mix of feelings," she told WVPB in an interview. "And then, (I) came to the reality, that someone just passing through, that would maybe be your reaction.
“And so I wanted my response to be not angry or sad, but a reality check about what really is going on in McDowell County, much of what you can’t see, and some of what hopefully in the near future, you will see,” Manchin said.
On the other hand, rates have increased for child abuse and neglect as well as child and teen deaths in McDowell County, according to Kids Count. And for adults, McDowell has some of the lowest life expectancies and highest drug overdose rates in the country.
Manchin acknowledges the challenges McDowell County faces from poverty and drug abuse, but says there’s more to the story.
Three Different Approaches to Helping McDowell County
On The Front Porch podcast, we debate three approaches:
1. Charity. Matthews writes, “What if the charitable giving could be larger in scope?
“The United States is filled with folks who are strong believers in the power of education. These men and women are eager to contribute. Let’s give them an address.”
2. Justice. Rick Wilson says, “This is an area where so much wealth has been extracted at such tremendous human cost. We really need good federal and state policies to undo the damage to these communities and the people who live there.” One such policy is the proposed Reclaim Act, now in Congress.
3. Palliative care. There has been relentless population loss in McDowell County, from more than 100,000 people to fewer than 20,000. Should we be helping people leave and making things more comfortable for those who cannot?
Matthews says no.
“The people who are staying are very determined. You can’t just close the county down and move everybody,” he said.
He suggested there may be some hope for more jobs through the Hatfield/McCoy ATV trail system and by continuing to save and promote the area’s mining heritage for tourism.
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Garret Mathews wrote feature stories and, later, columns for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph from 1972 until 1987 when he was hired to write the metro column for the Evansville, Ind., Courier & Press. His legacy website can be accessed at www.pluggerpublishing.com. The Telegraph’s circulation area includes McDowell County. Before mine mechanization took root in the early 1950s, the population hovered around 100,000. Today, it’s less than 20,000. Fewer than one in three residents are in the labor force. E-mail Garret Mathews at email@example.com