Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.

Identifying the Education X Factor

by James A. Bacon

The 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) scores are in, and it appears that Virginia’s school divisions made decent improvements in mathematics over the past year while losing ground marginally in reading, writing, science and history. Bottom line: Virginia students tread water another year.

Here are the percentage pass rates across all grades and schools systems. (The cells highlighted in blue reflect old tests, which were changed in 2012-13 to make them more rigorous.)

SOLs
Another year running in place – that’s demoralizing. Can we find some seeds of succor? There are a few. I plowed through the data released by the Virginia Department of Education and compiled composite pass scores for every school district. The highest possible score — a 100% pass rate for all five subjects — is 500. I pulled out the school districts with an average pass rate of 80%, hardly a world-beating performance but at least sufficient to prosper in a knowledge-based economy.

top_SOLs

As one would expect, affluent Northern Virginia cities and counties, which have some of the highest median incomes and highest average levels of education in the country, stood out in this list of the top-24 performing school districts.

But there are some pleasant surprises, most notably West Point, a small mill town on the York River and one of only two towns in Virginia that maintains its own school district. The median household income in 2010 fell short of $50,000 — less than half that of Loudoun County, Virginia’s most prosperous locality. (Although incomes are not high, poverty is very low in the town — less than 3.0%.)

How do the school children of a small, southern mill town out-perform super-affluent localities such as Loudoun, Arlington and Fairfax Counties? It could be a fluke — the town’s population is only 3,300. Maybe the outstanding performance was the result of random variation, which create wider swings in smaller numbers. Or maybe West Point schools are doing something right that others could emulate. Some enterprising newspaper reporter should find out.

Other stand-outs are schools in the Roanoke Valley. Roanoke County, Salem and Botetourt County schools all scored in the top twelve. Those school districts are significantly larger than West Point’s, so it’s harder to attribute such consistently high scores to random fluctuations.

Even more surprising is the performance of school divisions in far Southwest Virginia. Wise County, which racked up scores equal to Fairfax County, sits in the heart of Virginia’s economically ravaged coalfields. This is deepest, darkest Appalachia. Scott County and Washington County, also in Southwest Virginia, performed in line with affluent exurban school districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions.

Again, one must ask the question: How do these school systems beat the odds? They have fewer resources. Students’ parents have lower incomes and less education than in more affluent districts. The bromides about what determines school performance — spending per student, socio-economic status and education levels of the students’ parents — provide an incomplete explanation at best. What is that X factor? Can we capture it, bottle it and share it with other school districts?

I would love to crowd-source the analysis of these questions. For anyone who is interested in digging into the numbers, here they are:

What Price Happiness?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn't be happy living here... if you could afford it?

San Luis Obispo. Who wouldn’t be happy living here… if you could afford it?

by James A. Bacon

After learning that Virginia cities report some of the highest levels of personal satisfaction in the country (see “Happy“), I have been thinking a lot about what creates happy communities. In the hope of gaining a better understanding, I recently finished reading Dan Buettner’s 2010 book, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way,” that plumbed the social, economic and political wellsprings of happiness around the world.

The premise was intriguing: Buettner visited four “blue zones,” locations where research indicated inhabitants were world leaders in happiness. Visiting these zones — Denmark; Singapore; Monterey, Mexico; and San Luis Obispo, California — he interviewed politicians, academics, civic leaders and everyday people about why they thought their country/city measured off the charts.

The book is an easy and thought-provoking read. Buettner asks intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are all across the board. While there are some universal constants — people are happier when they aren’t starving, dying from pestilence and in continual fear of their physical safety; people value family and friendships; people with a sense of purpose are happier than those without – different cultures define happiness in different ways. The things that make Danes happy often are very different from the things that make Mexicans happy. Transplant a Mexican family from Monterey to Copenhagen and the result will not be joy and contentment.

While the United States doesn’t set the standard for worldwide happiness, its inhabitants are happier than most. And of all the places in the country, it turns out that the residents of San Luis Obispo are, on average, the happiest in the United States. The picture that Buettner paints of San Luis Obispo, a city of 45,000 amid a county of 270,000, is an attractive one. Set in central California, the region has a great climate. There are lots of bike trails. The town is highly walkable. Local ordinances ban gaudy commercial signage. People are healthy and physically active. As home to California Polytechnic, the town has a lively cultural scene. People are tolerant of cultural minorities. Much wine is consumed. In sum, San Luis Obispo is the Charlottesville of California. Not coincidentally, Charlottesville was ranked happiest among all of America’s small metros in a 2010 Center for Disease Control survey cited in a July National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Unhappy Cities.” (I do not know if the CDC used the same methodology for ascertaining happiness as the researchers cited by Buettner.)

There may be more to San Luis Obispo’s secret sauce than meets the eye, however. Outside the university, there are limited economic opportunities, Buettner writes. And the quality of life is so desirable that people drive up the price of the limited supply of housing to levels that are unaffordable to many.

In other words, San Luis Obispo has used strict zoning and growth controls to create a delightful environment… for those who can afford it. Judging by happiness surveys, the people who live there are extremely satisfied with the results. But think about what that means. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of less affluent Californians who would like to share in that happiness but have been effectively priced out of the market. Who are those Californians? For the most part they are poor and minorities. San Luis Obispo is 85% white. Hispanics, some of whom are classified as white, constitute only 14.7% of the population. The number of Asians and native Indians is small, and the number of African-Americans is insignificant.

So, while San Luis Obispo celebrates diversity, it does not practice it. People — liberals and conservatives alike – like living around other people like them. The shared values stemming from such cultural homogeneity builds trust, and trust is a critical ingredient for happiness. The wider the radius of trust and cooperation in a community, the happier the people living there.

San Luis Obispo is hardly the only community to engage in exclusionary zoning. The practice is widespread around the country. But zoning out poor people, who tend to be less happy, is not in accord with America’s ideas of social justice. There is a rising tide of thought that nations should measure themselves not just by the size of their economies but by their Gross National Happiness. That sounds like a wonderful idea — until you ask whose happiness and how it is achieved.

The View from Federal Court’s Media Room

mcdonnell By Peter Galuszka

The media corps is just starting to amble into small room granted by the U.S. District Court, albeit with tight rules. No cell phone calls outside the cramped quarters in the hallways. No slouching in the corridor with your laptop on the floor hoping your cellphone hot spot still works.

If you violate the rules, guards under the supervision of U.S. District Judge James Spencer, you could have your electronics confiscated.

The fun part is that it’s a congenial group with several from the local newspaper, three from The Washington Post which broke the McDonnell story, one from the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Politico and me, for Bloomberg News.

We sit for hours on hardwood seats waiting for breaks to file updates or stories. The television folks must go tot he sidewalks outside and they have been admonished by tough Judge Spencer not to block the doorways.

The witnesses are a study in contrast — the largest being former Gov. Bob McDonnell who seemed calm, collected, even charming under three days of defense direct questioning.

It was a different tune yesterday under cross by Asst. U.S. Atty. Mike Dry, who in a steady and deliberate manner foisted a metamorphosis of McDonnell that would have done Kafka proud. Gone was the likable, good-looking man who almost broke down when he was shown the lovesick email he wrote his wife to save his failing marriage.

McDonnell had turned clipped, angry and confrontational. The more crew-cut Dry hit home at the contradictions, the more McDonnell went to tart ?No” or “Yes” answers.

How could it be that you and Maureen were so strained in your relations that you barely spoke (and thus could hardly conspire) when you took 18 trips with her in a 22 month time frame, including Florida, Kiawah, Smith Mountain Lake and other places.

You say you are a “good personal friend” of Richmond philanthropist William Goodwin (who gave you the $23,000 Kiawah trip). Name his children. McDonnell couldn’t.

You say your finances are in order (and you had a financial “expert” show that rentals at Sunseeker down in Sandbridge and the other properties were on the mend. How is it then that about a dozen financial institutions turned you down for traditional refinancing and you had to go to personal sources like Jonnie Williams for a bailout?

And if you were upset that wife Maureen had taken a $50,000 loan from Williams without your knowledge, why did you wait more than a month to contact Williams to ask what was going on?

We’ll have to see how long Dry continues with his cross examination. Some say it might end today. His strategy is to draw out endless inconsistencies. We’ll see how it works with the jury.

Maureen McDonnell and Sexism

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

Sitting for hours listening to former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell testify in his federal corruption trial makes one wonder exactly what his values are, especially as they relate to women.

His entire legal strategy is to “Throw Maureen Under the Bus” – namely his lawyers and those of his co-defendant wife Maureen are portraying Ms. McDonnell as a “basket case” who set up a lot of funny meetings with snake oil salesman Jonnie Ray Williams Sr., accepted expensive gifts from him with promptly telling her husband, and communicated with him 1,200 times in about a year and a half (one day it was 52 text messages.)

She is bad and deceptive. He is good and didn’t know much about her messy friendship with Williams. She is guilty. He is innocent (or so it goes).

Gov. Bob, helmet hair perfect as usual, took the jurors through a horrible litany of his long-decaying marriage to college sweetheart Maureen. While she was screaming and intimidating her staff, he was slogging through “the business of governing” for endless hours every day.

When she approached Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 2012 and offered the woman who suffers from MS some “Anatabloc,” Williams’ miracle pills, Bob overhead it and was “embarrassed.”

There is something deeply disturbing, however, about McDonnell and his attitudes. He seems to have come from a bygone era when men worked long hours, held major responsibilities and answered to the most important thing in their lives – their overweening ambition.

The husband was ordained by God to do great things, be a Boy Scout, and write his name in history books. His wife was to stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen knitting socks or selling silly vials of creams.

McDonnell has since disowned this little passage he wrote at Regent University (Pat Robertson’s school) back in 1989 when he was a graduate student, but it seems strangely relevant. He tried to create some kind of conservative, faith-based government paradigm that would cut taxes, open charter schools and the like. He wrote:

“Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children.” The kicker is his view that feminism is one of the “real enemies of the traditional family.”

Well, a hell of lot of good that thinking has done since he has steadily, deliberately humiliated his wife in a bid to avoid jail time. A parade of defense witnesses, mostly McDonnell cronies, have humiliated Ms. McDonnell as a grabby, irrational, fashion-mad bimbo who just didn’t get it when Bob patiently told her that the stock she held in Star Scientific, Williams’ firm, had lost half their value and were a bad investment.

There are other giveaways that paint McDonnell as a self-important, entitled, superior little prig. Maureen had an apparently successful home-based business selling nutraceuticals like face creams. The Bob that may have sounded so pointlessly “womanish” but it is a big business. When he ran for statewide offices, he told Maureen to nix the biz.

Now wait a minute. Why should he tell his wife that she can’t run her own business she built up because his mission as a conservative political savior is just too important? Why does he get to decide?

One reason has roots in a kind of mid- 20th century philosophy that one used to see in black and white movies and television shows. There has been a deluge of testimony about the Virginia suburbs of DC roots of the McDonnells. Lots of military, conservative, family values, do-goodism, ticket punching (making colonel or the appropriate GS level position) having some silly affection for the Redskins or golf club bags with your school logo and so on. But the most obnoxious attitude is that the self-pride that one is doing something very important for his country and fellow citizens.

If you are male, you get to wear this cloak. If you are a woman, your first and foremost goal is to mind the kids and support your man and be a handmaiden to HIS career and ambitions. Watch the 1950s “Strategic Air Command” film” with Jimmy Stewart as a ballplayer pilot and his dutiful wife June Allyson. He makes the big decisions and flies the big bombers. She’s always waiting at the air base fence for him to come home so she can cook him fried eggs.

But McDonnell has a bigger problem than just this over-the-top sense of duty. By his own testimony, McDonnell is seriously addicted to political ambition. It is his oxycodone. His heroin. He gets a real kick by planning the next stage (vice president? president?) Maureen is left by herself and her screaming fits. Bob just tunes her out and spends as much time traveling and in his office as he can.

As he testified, McDonnell got a buzz from being a state legate and an even bigger buzz by running for attorney general and governor. One woman who seemed to be cheering him every step of the way was Janet Kelly, who ended up being Secretary of the Commonwealth when he became governor. She testified that when he wanted her for that spot, she told him flat out she could not work with Maureen. She didn’t.

Family values, anyone?

“The State Cut our Funding” — the Excuse that Never Stops Giving

College students -- facing a future of endless servitude to debt.

College students — a future of endless debt servitude.

Students attending Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities will pay an additional 5.2% in tuition and fees compared to last year, according to the latest State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) data. Tuition leaped 6.8% but that was partially offset by a modest 2.3% increase in mandatory fees, covering such things as student health, transportation, athletics and transportation, reports the Loudoun Times. By contrast, the Consumer Price Index increased 2.1%.

Dan Hix, SCHEV’s finance policy director, blamed inadequate state support, noting that General Assembly funding covers only 53% of educational costs, far short of its 67% target. Despite initial promises to increase funding by $100 million (presumably this fiscal year — the Times is not clear), the General Assembly came through with only $5 million more, he said.

Let me get this straight. The state didn’t cut public support but actually increased it by $5 million (essentially keeping funding stable) yet colleges and universities are blaming the state for a 6.8% increase (4.1% over and above inflation) in tuition? Really?

– JAB

Map of the Day: Best and Worst States for Underprivileged Children

WalletHub has struck again, compiling a basket of indicators measuring the well being of poor children, including such factors as the percentage in foster care, the percentage in single-parent families, the percentage in below-poverty households, the percentage that are malnourished, the percentage experiencing food insecurity and the percentage that are homeless. By these measures, Virginia ranked 10th best in the country.Among the notable metrics: Virginia has the lowest number of children in foster care of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and it has the third lowest number of maltreated children.

I would love to believe those figures are an accurate representation. However, recent scandals in the City of Richmond social services department suggest that the actual incidence of maltreatment may be under-reported and that the low number of foster children may be due to the incompetence of some social service agencies in placing children in foster homes. Richmond may be just one social services program, but it does cause one to question the numbers.

– JAB

Poor Blacks Must Abandon Negative Learned Behaviors

Morris Daniels

Morris Daniels

The discussion about poverty in America is dominated by politicians, academics, journalists and members of the professional caring class, most of whom have their own biases and agendas. We hear very little from poor people themselves.

The Richmond Sheriff’s Department has launched a new program, Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles, to help inmates convicted of violent crimes prepare for re-entering society. Program leader Sarah Scarbrough leads participants in regular discussion of current events, drawing from newspapers, magazines and blogs. One of the participants, Morris Daniels, wrote a letter to Scarbrough in response to a Bacon’s Rebellion post about Mayor Dwight Jones’ anti-poverty plan. Daniels has no institutional agenda. He speaks from the heart. I publish his letter (with light editing, as I would do for any writer) with his permission. – JAB


By Morris Daniels

You posed two questions to the group on Wednesday: (1) What are the problems with the people having subsidized housing? and (2) What can be done to resolve these problems?

For question #1, the problem is the people. Blacks are a “broken people” who acquired hundreds of “learned behaviors” from their slave masters a long time ago. When we were brought to this land, we learned how to discipline our children and we learned how to feed our children. I don’t know of any Caucasians who eat pork belly, chitterlings, pigs feet, pigs tail, or pig ears, let alone fried pig skin. We are the best improvisers in the world because we can take “something from nothing” and make it work for our good.

The problem is that we learned negative behavior, probably starting from watching the white man build his stills and sell moonshine. We bought and sold the moonshine to “provide for our families,” despite the fact that it turned us into alcoholics. This act became a “cultured mind state pattern” to the black people. We started selling marijuana in the ‘60s, gambling, opening up shot houses (places that sell liquor/beer and food), gamble and play numbers. Women prostituted themselves. Then came cocaine, heroin, crack, and back to pills.

After the Civil Rights movement, I feel, black people “gave up the good fight” and reverted back to those learned behaviors. They settled for subsidized housing, welfare checks and food stamps because it was free money that they didn’t have to work for. That’s what they knew from so many years of negative learned behavior. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Oh Mighty Whites are the cause of the black man’s problems as a whole, because we do know right from wrong, according to the laws of the land. We make our own choices, according to what we desire to have instead of what’s best for our lives.

The difference between whites and blacks is culture. The whites have their culture through education and training, but blacks had their “culture” imposed on them: miseducation, uneducation, inequality, inferiority, impoverishment, genocide and homicide, self-hate, envy, pride, racism and exploitation just to name a few examples of self-destruction through ignorance.

The problem in subsidized housing is that black people are addicted to their own culture. The only solution is to change the culture itself. It will take over a hundred years to fix what happened to the mind of black people over the five hundred years as an enslaved people. The new and old generations have to die off and a “rebuilding” of the mind of the black nation has to take place because if you start with a negative “as a people” you are going to end with a negative.

We need a rebirth.

One Very Sad Day In Court

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

One literally could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.

William Burck, lawyer for  Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s Former First Lady who has been indicted no 14 corruption charges along with her former governor husband was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.

“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said. Ms. McDonnell was angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.

As John L. Brownlee, McDonnell’s lawyer, said, McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”

In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade.) Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”

“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.

At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the Governor will read the email when he goes on the jury stand during the trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”

One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.

It could be that a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy may work to get both of them off. After all, she wasn’t a public official and could do what she wanted as far as gifts. The prosecution’s opening statement drew a rather detailed and concise outline of just what and when the McDonnells solicited Williams’ largesse, right down to the “thank you” emails when money arrived in the bank to Maureen’s cell phone snap shot of Bob wearing slick, wraparound sunglasses while driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Giving the McDonnell’s the benefit of the doubt, I have to say I’ve heard this kind of story before among long-married couples suffering through middle age as their children are ready to fly away. Their stories may not be dramatic but I’ve got to admit that Bob McDonnell never seemed to exhibit such grabby behavior before.

This raises another tough question. What should “public service” be and how much should it take from one’s private life. More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?

McDonnell slogged through relatively low-paying jobs like the General Assembly, Attorney General and Governor. He had five kids and a wife who seemed very freaked out by being First Lady – a role she apparently never wanted. She came from a Northern Virginia civil service family that didn’t exactly have a grand disposable income.

Consider two other Virginia governors –former and current. Mark Warner, now U.S. Senator, is rich from his telecommunications investments made years ago. At one point he was said to be worth a couple hundred million dollars. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, another former businessman, is likewise wealthy but probably not as rich as Warner.

Should these people be in office because they are rich? Should public service be available only to those with great portfolios? What would Thomas Jefferson say?

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there –  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.