A few weeks ago I and 30 others from nine countries visited the Appalachian town of Welch, West Virginia, in an attempt to better understand America — the America after a presidential election marked by the blue-collar community's ostensibly gloomy future.
For many Americans, this fact is epitomized by the embattled coal industry, which employs an estimated 83,000 miners and 90,000 other workers in related areas such as transportation. In other words, a group that amounts to about 1 percent of the American workforce has come to symbolize the challenges faced by many communities and millions of workers across the nation.
To this constituency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump brought two opposing narratives. Clinton supported enhanced globalization based on free-trade agreements, as well as a transitioning of the U.S. energy sector to renewables. This was understood by many to mean a further loss of American manufacturing jobs and a further decimation of blue-collar communities.
Meanwhile, Trump, under the banner of America First, promised to protect such jobs against “unfair” international trade agreements and progressive policies such as environmental protection laws. When Trump won, it was in large part due to counties like the one where Welch sits, McDowell. In this once-Democratic, poorest-in-the-nation county, three of four voters supported Trump over Clinton.
The scenery in McDowell County is misleading. The wooded mountains with running streams might make you think you were in Switzerland. But a drive into the hills revealed harrowing poverty. Dilapidated structures that seemed uninhabitable were in fact homes. In Welch itself, the vast majority of the buildings were empty, their windows broken.
Statistics tell a story of an unimaginable crisis. Some 52 percent of the children aren’t raised by either parent. They and many others are of course poor. The population has shrunk by nearly 80 percent in the last 25 years, so nearly four of every five homes are simply abandoned in the absence of buyers.
This area is the worst hit by the opioid crisis, which creates an unbearable burden on the health care system. That crisis is also a key driver in the decline of life expectancy, which is now nearly a decade shorter than it was 35 years ago. In addition, the water system relies on 100-year-old wooden pipes, so visitors are told to drink bottled water only.
This area’s nickname “coal country” is no coincidence. During the first half of the 20th century, when coal was the main source of energy and the United States led the mass-manufacturing revolution, McDowell was one of West Virginia’s most flourishing counties. World War II was the heyday, and the prosperity continued into the '50s. Locals still proudly talk about the traffic jams that clogged the city center, and point to a white structure that supposedly was the country’s first open-air public parking garage.
In McDowell County, mining is more than a profession or vocation. It’s an identity, a culture, a legacy. Even today, working inside the mountains is hard and dangerous, but it was a job that made for a good living. With one year’s salary you could buy a four-bedroom, three-story house.
The stories about the miner communities may remind Israelis of tales about life in moshav agricultural communities. Everybody knew each other well, much of the social life happened on porches, the children roamed from one house to another, and the community was together in happiness and sorrow. In West Virginia the manager of a mine, who often lived in a slightly bigger house a bit higher on the mountain, also often provided spiritual guidance as a priest and gave counsel in moments of conflict.
In some cases, entire communities were employed by one company, which also operated the local store and cinema and organized community events. In fact, on our five-day visit, we met many people whose family story was tied to mining for three generations or more.
Company towns suffer
The crisis came when demand for coal and thus mining jobs in the United States began to shrink in the ‘60s. This happened as manufacturing left for other countries, and as new mines competed around the world. Trump, meanwhile, has blamed China and Mexico for stealing American jobs due to unfair trade agreements, though actually technological progress and advanced mining techniques have been the biggest culprit forcing some companies to shut down altogether. As a result, in the mine we visited, 15 workers in two shifts have double the capacity of 50 workers 25 years ago.
In the nearby town of Gary, most families were employed by one mining company. In March 1983, when that firm pulled out of the area, 550 families became welfare dependent and the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 90 percent overnight. Also, many of the community frameworks like Rotary clubs and churches disintegrated, which led to an even greater dependence on welfare.
Now, as these communities try to dig themselves out, they face seemingly insurmountable challenges. For example, it’s nearly impossible to get teachers and doctors to relocate to Welch. Not a single doctor is in residence in the town, and the local hospital relies on professionals who commute for three days a week. One-third of new teachers don’t last more than a year amid the challenges of poverty, drugs and violence in the schools.
Still, Welch is the home of hard-working people whose generosity can be mind-boggling. Lindsay Levin, founder of the group Leaders’ Quest that organized the visit, calls such people “windows into the future” or “pockets of hope.” Take G. and D., 28-year-olds who asked that their names not be used. He makes an annual salary of $30,000, yet together they raise six children, three of whom are in their custody after his sister became unfit to be a parent. In fact, in Welch, many families take in such children considered “homeless,” even as many as five.
Craig Snow represents another pocket of hope in Welch. He retired from a long career in the U.S. government’s international development arm, USAID, after serving in places like China and Indonesia. After moving back to California, he decided to continue these efforts in his own country and relocated to Welch.
The locals joked that he’s probably the only person who has moved to the town in recent years. Snow established the company Warrior Creek Development, which, under the banner “Revitalize Appalachia,” rebuilds dilapidated homes into beautiful ones that can serve young professionals considering moving to Welch — like those badly needed teachers and doctors. Snow’s team even proudly put one of its new units up for rent on Airbnb.
We also met Linda and Bob McKinney, who established the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank, which feeds and clothes 1,800 people every month with an annual core budget of $25,000. They are passionate, articulate and effective, which makes them local celebrities of sorts, as everybody stops by to visit their operation.
The McKinneys’ son Joel served in the navy, traveled the world and returned to Welch. His mission is to educate local people about growing vegetables at home. This is particularly important; after the local Walmart closed down a few years ago, there’s no fresh supply of fruit and vegetables. Joel built an organic greenhouse where he grows tomatoes and other produce; he also has plastic poles where he grows lettuce.
Of everyone we met in Welch, Joel stood out in his mastery of concepts such as impact investments and crowdsourcing, and he’ll soon be graduating from an online master’s program in finance. So it’s no surprise when he says his seed investment came from crowdfunding.
Mellissa is Joel’s partner. She is 28, created a nonprofit company that promotes local economic development, and is the mother of two children age 6 and 10 from her first marriage. She says that Welch doesn’t have a single after-school activity like karate or ballet, and that her son studies voice over the internet.
Mellissa, like most people we met there, got married and became a parent at a very young age “because that’s what everybody does here” — a predominantly evangelical community where it’s considered illegitimate to live together before marriage, where many don’t go to college and where there is little to do for recreation. In Welch six places are open at night, including a convenience store at a gas station and a cinema. The McDonald’s is the most happening place of all.
A town called hope
Chad Riffe is a shift manager in the mine we visited, who took us into the tunnels up to the point where the giant machines literally eat the mountain to produce coal. He was wearing a typical blue overall and his face was black with coal dust. After a short security briefing, we too were fitted with helmets, heavy boots and overalls, and boarded the flat jeep-type vehicles that drive through the mine in shafts five to six feet high.
During the ride we encountered an opinionated man who knows his history, politics and economics. He’s a Christian, a Republican and a Trump supporter who has been working at the mines for 23 years since he was 19. He plans to continue to do so for years to come. While he realizes that the industry may be shrinking, he believes that there will be demand for coal. His most proud achievements are his daughters who graduated from college; one of them is returning to the area and will be marrying a miner.
There are inspiring stories in Welch about strong families that raised successful children. The tragedy is that many who want to succeed simply leave the area.
One of them is Jeff, whom I met after I returned to New York. The plan was for him to be a miner and study geology so he could become a manager in the mining industry. But at 17 he decided to leave. Like many other young people in Welch, he joined the military. He eventually became a general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeff’s five siblings are also very successful, whether in the federal government or private business. None of them lives in the area.
As an Israeli who lives in the United States, the visit to Welch was shocking. The world knows America as the wealthiest nation in the world and the land of unlimited opportunities, where everyone who studies and works hard can realize the American Dream. But places like Welch and entire regions are very distant from the American Dream. In fact, most people there don’t have good access to the health care, training and education needed to compete in a rapidly evolving economy and labor market.
From Welch it’s easy to appreciate some of Israel’s remarkable achievements. For example, Israel’s universal health care service — in remote areas of the country as well — would be the subject of envy for the people of Welch and, in fact, for millions of Americans. Israel’s infrastructure for communal services, such as its community centers and early childhood centers, are a fantasy in Welchian terms. And as inspired as we were by people like Craig Snow and Joel, the depth and breadth of Israel’s entrepreneurship would be breathtaking for locals.
Riva Honaker is the mayor of Welch. She is 74 and was elected at 67 after retiring from her flower shop, surviving cancer and bringing up two children. She met us in her modest office, and her team is inundated with problems due to the dilapidating water and electricity infrastructure. As she put it, she’s constantly fighting to make ends meet in an environment where the further shrinking of the coal industry seems inevitable.
Yet at the same time, Appalachia can have a promising future. A few weeks after I visited Welch, I got to spend time in Aspen, Colorado, one of the most flourishing communities in America. Aspen was once a thriving silver-mining town that declined into irrelevance. According to Wikipedia, in the 1930s its population was below 1,000 people. Then came a visionary businessman who reinvented the city into what it is today: a prosperous community that’s a mecca for some of America’s most influential people.
Similarly, Welch’s future calls for visionary leadership that can turn the area’s mining legacy and infrastructure, gorgeous scenery and many empty buildings into engines of long-term economic and social development. In our five days at Welch, we met a few of the people who can actually do it.
Gidi Grinstein is the founder of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Group, which seeks to create an Israeli and Jewish model society.