You’re Gonna Change the Economy? How, Exactly?

If people were surprised at how skeptical voters in the recent West Virginia Democratic primary were of Barack Obama’s casting himself as the candidate of change, they shouldn’t have been. West Virginians have a right to be skeptical of talk about progress.

People in big cities talk about their fears of a prolonged recession and the end of cheap gas. But people in my part of West Virginia have experienced a depression for 80 years now, ever since the timber industry left. Other parts of the state have been on the same downward trajectory since the 1960s, when coal mining started to modernize and thousands were thrown off the job.

Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about economic change here, unless it’s about all the young people who continue to leave the state in droves for greener pastures. Like everywhere, local economic development councils build industrial parks and propose regional wastewater plants to try to make the area more inviting for companies to move in.

But the companies rarely come, and funding is scarce for home-grown jobs. Some folks are trying to create new enterprises, like the people in my county who want to build a local woodworking economy. They fixed up an old auto shop and stocked it with heavy-duty equipment that carpenters and furniture-makers can use to cut lumber for a nominal fee. It’s a great idea, but the program may soon lose a critical government funding source.

There is one trend that could help rural places like West Virginia, but so far, it’s had a mixed impact.

As a recent Rooflines post noted, some think Peak Oil is here, and that a movement back toward living in small towns could be ahead. I don’t think there’s a movement, but quite a few people between 45 and 65 are definitely eyeing small-town living.

The nearest decent-sized town to me has seen dramatic changes in the past 30 years. Its once-moribund downtown now overflows with chic shops and restaurants, and new subdivisions have popped up on the town’s periphery.

It helped that an interstate was completed to the town in the late 1980s. But there’s also a fair number of older folks who are defying the movement to the cities. Instead of getting a condo in a gentrifying downtown, they’re gentrifying the countryside. McMansions are showing up close to barnyards.

The town’s center looks good, but the influx of wealthier people has caused land prices to climb sharply. Meanwhile, while the newcomers have created a few construction jobs, there isn’t much evidence of any long-term economic growth. The new people, concerned about keeping their scenic vistas, discourage any kind of energy development, even cleaner technologies like wind power.

The reality is that small towns far from metro areas aren’t seeing much economic progress, and that makes people suspicious of politicians who promise the world.

In the fall, when Obama will maybe come back to Appalachia, he might try scrapping his stump speech about he’s going to change the economy. Instead he should visit a few of the grassroots enterprises that are struggling to rebuild tattered local economies, long abandoned by industrial giants. That might be more convincing to a few of the skeptics around here.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. What is not clear is why voters in the West Virginia Democratic primary were not just as skeptical of Hillary Clinton. Significant proportions of voters have themselves admitted that race was a factor. I am prepared to accept them at their word and believe that it was race and not skepticism.


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