Learning from Appalachia

One of the privileges we enjoyed at the Institute this past year was working with leaders and citizens of two small middle-Appalachia communities, Pennington Gap, Virginia and Montgomery, West Virginia, as they sought to chart a future course. Both towns are small— approximately 2,000 or so individuals live in each—and both have experienced catastrophic economic decline in recent years. In the case of Pennington Gap, that has come in the guise of the continuing decay of the coal mining industry as a result of mechanization, competition from natural gas, changing markets due to new demand patterns arising from environmental concerns and the fact that much of the easiest to obtain and highest quality Appalachian coal has already been mined. In addition, this small Lee County community has witnessed the waning of the tobacco industry, previously an agricultural mainstay and high value crop. Montgomery, meanwhile, has also suffered the closure of the coal mines near it that had long ensured its prosperity and this past year lost another foundation with closure of its branch location of West Virginia Tech. Montgomery’s branch of that 4-year public higher education institution had been home to some 1,700 students per year and its faculty and employees and their earnings had all helped to support the community’s economy. The continued decline of mining alongside the loss of this stable source of employment and retail support has created a cascading series of negative effects for the town.

As a consequence of these trends, which were not created by the residents of these communities, both jurisdictions are now confronting high poverty rates in their remaining populations, decaying private and public infrastructure, a crisis of opioid addiction among a  share of their citizens with the attendant difficulties that trend suggests and an outward migration of their young people. Moreover, both are witnessing the steady erosion of their public schools  as institutional bastions as enrollment falters and locations close.

Our role as we worked with public and civic leaders from both communities was to help them understand better the character of their challenges and to work with them and with interested citizens to chart a course forward that mirrored the hopes and values of their populations. This process was somewhat different for each community, given the particular assets and ongoing efforts of each, but Institute staff, faculty and graduate students, with the assistance of colleagues from the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, sought to  help the two towns identify their preferred paths and possibilities themselves, rather than to suggest we could or should do so. The leaders of both towns told us that our efforts were very helpful to the major stakeholders of their communities, and that each jurisdiction now has the information to allow it to pose tradeoffs and consider possible steps to address its circumstances thoughtfully. That is, we helped these community officials and citizens grasp more fully their contextual environments and consider possible ways they might proceed, given the realities and vicissitudes of the conditions they now confront. Our aim was never to tell them what to do, but instead to seek to help them identify alternatives concerning how they might wish to proceed and why.

Reflecting on our work with Pennington Gap and Montgomery, I want to highlight some of the exogenous forces that have shaped and will continue to structure the futures of these two Appalachian communities. Some are historical, others are related to changing market conditions and others have arisen on the basis of how some elements of our political system have reacted to the shaping trends that have placed these communities in the parlous state they now confront. I outline these here, but I recognize that each could easily merit a separate and more detailed analysis of its own and many more items could be added to this list.

  • These communities came to exist historically in economic terms because they were located near rivers and rich natural resources, especially For decades, coal provided stable employment for their citizens and more; the income it produced sustained the livelihood and tax base of both towns more generally. That is, these small communities are located where they are so that entrepreneurs could exploit the natural resources located near each to serve the energy and, to a lesser degree in the case of Pennington Gap, the personal consumer demands of a burgeoning nation. This was true into the 1960s, but mining technologies had already become more mechanized, the health dangers of tobacco use had become more widely known and external market conditions had begun to shift markedly during that decade and that pace only quickened in the 1970s and thereafter, resulting in falling employment in these sectors across Appalachia. Today, neither community can call coal mining a principal employer for its remaining population and the leaders of neither town are looking to resource extraction related employment to secure their citizenry’s futures.


  • The vexing basic question this reality raises, given the fact that the United States economy is driven to so large an extent by autonomous market actors seeking to maximize returns on their investments, is whether these towns can now redefine themselves in a fashion that market actors and consumers in their broader regional economies will In this, their small size and difficult straits make their challenge more arduous than it might otherwise be by removing much margin for error and by sharply limiting the resources available to pursue such repositioning. This is to say nothing ill about these leaders or citizens or their characters or capacities, but instead to point up the overwhelming significance of the market dominated realities of the economy in which they must operate. As Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman observed recently when examining the regenerative potential of (much larger) small cities (e.g., Rochester, New York with its 210,000 residents):

… If you back up enough it makes sense to think of urban destinies as a random process of wins and losses in which small cities face a relatively high likelihood of gambler’s ruin. … It’s going to be an uphill struggle [to maintain the viability of small cities]. In the modern economy, which has cut loose from the land, any particular small city exists only because of historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance.1

  • This difficulty is exacerbated by the challenge that many voters in these communities have known no other way of life than that which coal and, to a lesser degree, tobacco production In such a circumstance and given how quickly that known way of life has evanesced, many citizens in both of the towns with which we worked understandably continue to hope that the coal industry will return to its past vibrancy and that few changes in their ways of thinking and living in the world will be necessary as a result. In this, they have been encouraged by President Trump, who carried both localities by wide margins in the 2016 national election and has argued that coal’s decline is the product of unfair foreign competition and undue regulation rather than any structural changes in the market for the commodity. There is no evidence to back this assertion, but many citizens have adopted Trump’s stand as a coping mechanism and a way to maintain hope in a difficult situation. For present purposes, it must be said that this scenario makes it thorny politically for Montgomery and Pennington Gap political and civic leaders to seek change. More, it is not altogether implausible that an unwillingness to contemplate an alternative future could completely inhibit both communities from repositioning themselves for economic regeneration. The interested observer should always keep this possibility in mind and, should it occur, seek to understand why citizens chose that course.


  • These towns, like many elsewhere across the nation, are confronting a rapidly changing economy during a period of strong vilification of government and governance among many in the While individualism and suspicion of government are hardy perennials in the United States, the idea that public investment and governance itself are little but parasites in our political economy now dominates the perspective of many in the nation’s leading political party, the GOP. And that is certainly the case in the regions in which Montgomery and Pennington Gap are located. In this circumstance and given that party’s recent national tax action expected to create at least an additional $1 trillion deficit in federal funding during the next decade, it may be difficult for these towns to obtain the resources necessary to develop the foundations on which to predicate any new vision. This economic and social reality may only reinforce the political difficulty the leaders of these Appalachian communities now confront.

None of this is to contend that these two towns will succeed or fail in their efforts. Like Krugman, I find that impossible to predict. What I can say is that all democratic social change is complex and dependent upon changing otherwise sticky ontological and epistemic assumptions among populations, who may elect to ignore pleas to do so. In the present case, that fact is exacerbated by the reality that the residents of these Appalachian communities have been traumatized by rapid economic shifts in a very short time frame and have also been presented with political claims by national and state leaders that these changes can, in fact, be readily addressed or ignored. Some have heeded that assertion while others have abandoned all hope that positive change is possible; many of these are the drug addicted now so evident in these towns.

Both groups make it more difficult for these community’s leaders to build and maintain a political consensus for change with others who see the need for such action.

Finally, I can also conclude that all of us engaged in this effort came away from our involvement with the citizens and leaders of both communities with profound respect for the resourcefulness, intelligence, determination and grace with which they are seeking to address the changed circumstances of their towns. If anyone can overcome the difficulties now confronting Montgomery and Pennington Gap, these leaders and their citizens will surely do so. Of that I have no doubt.


 1 Krugman, Paul. “The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities (Wonkish),” The New York Times, December 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/30/opinion/the-gamblers-ruin-of-small-cities-wonkish.html Accessed December 30, 2017.