Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

The City of Great Places

Belden Street

Belden Street

So, here we are in San Francisco, in the heart of the land of fruits and nuts. We’re  planning to do a lot of the usual tourista things — take the boat to Alcatraz, bike to Sausalito, visit the Exploratorium — but your roving correspondent also will be applying a keen eye to the human settlements patterns of one of the United States’ most remarkable urban experiments.

San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley comprise the most economically productive region in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Manhattan, although I regard the New York financial industry as a monstrous parasite that, due to Quantitative Easing, prospers at the expense of the rest of the country). San Francisco and San Jose (and environs in between) also happen to have the most expensive real estate prices (outside, perhaps, Manhattan) and the greatest income inequality in the country. Yet there is a remarkable divergence between Frisco and Silicon Valley. San Francisco hews to the Smart Growth ideals of higher density, mixed-use, walkable and transit-oriented human settlement patterns while Silicon Valley epitomizes sprawl. San Francisco is a tourist destination; Silicon Valley is not. I don’t know what all that adds up to but it is my framework for writing whatever I write about.

First observations: Arriving Saturday evening fatigued from a long trip, the Bacon farrow (farrow? Look it up.) checked into its hotel and set out to grab a meal before hitting the sack. There is a delightful little street near our hotel — Belden Street on the edge of Chinatown (see photo above). It really isn’t even a street, it’s more of an alleyway, too narrow for cars, that is lined with seven or eight restaurants. There is nothing exceptional about the street; it’s just one small example of the place-making that inspires love of this city. The alleyway is a visual surprise in that is represents a departure from the dominant street grid. Cozy and intimate in its human scale, it is a delight to stroll through.

Multiply Belden Street hundreds of times across the region and you get a place where people love to live and are fiercely loyal to.

– JAB 

Blaming the Innocent and Exonerating the Guilty

Scuzzy girls' locker room in   Armstrong High. Who's responsible for inadequate maintenance?

Scuzzy girls’ locker room in Armstrong High. Who’s responsible for inadequate maintenance? (Photo credit: Style Weekly.)

by James A. Bacon

In the previous post, PeterG questioned the priority of “Richmond’s elite” of building a new baseball stadium for the Flying Squirrels over patching the city’s scandalously decrepit public schools. I share his skepticism that what the city really needs right now is a new stadium. However, I disagree with a core premise of his post, that “Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools.”

In FY 2009 the City of Richmond schools spent $13,601 per pupil. Henrico County spent $9,369. Chesterfield and Hanover spent slightly more per capita. In other words, “Richmond’s elite” spent 45% more per pupil on Richmond city students than on students in “affluent” Henrico County. (I rely upon outdated statistics because I simply did not have time this morning to search for more recent ones. The per-pupil spending gap has not changed significantly since then.)

A better question is why “Richmond’s elite” tolerates suburban schools receiving so few tax dollars compared to their city counterparts.

An unspoken assumption embedded in PeterG’s commentary is that the problem in Richmond schools is insufficient funds as opposed to a misallocation or mismanagement of  funds. Is the failure to budget sufficiently for basic maintenance in a school system that spent $13,600 per pupil in 2009 (and more today) the fault of “Richmond’s elite”… or the school administration?

One last thing: PeterG fails to take into account the considerable resources raised by Richmond-area philanthropists to supplement public dollars spent in the schools. The Communities in Schools program, for instance, locates resources from city social services and non-profit programs to help students coping with the dysfunctions of poverty — lining up  food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation, and occasionally even furniture for children’s homes. “Richmond’s elite” is actually very involved in helping poor, inner-city minority kids.

I’m not persuaded that gallivanting off to Tampa in search of the great Tiki bar will help Richmond junketeers discover anything terribly useful for Richmond — I do agree with Peter on that. The Chamber of Commerce’s annual visits seem to lack focus and rarely come back with insights that can be applied locally. Instead of visiting Tampa, perhaps the group should have traveled to New York City to see what difference the charter schools movement there is making for minority kids and assess the applicability of charter schools to Richmond. That’s the kind of bold, non-incremental thinking the city needs.

The region’s political and civic leaders probably do need a cattle prod to think more creatively about the region’s challenges. But blaming them for the sorry condition of city schools is really too much.

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

Income Inequality and Party Representation

income_inequality
by James A. Bacon

As a follow-up to my previous post, yes, honest liberals do exist. One of them is Michael Zuckerman writing in Atlantic Cities, who squarely confronts the reality that Democratic congressional districts experience far more income inequality overall than Republican congressional districts. He compiled the chart above which shows the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Concludes Zuckerman: “As the data show, Democrats have a lock not only on the country’s richest districts but also on the districts with the highest in-district income inequality.”

He then advances an interesting hypothesis: “Considered alongside these well-established trends, the fact that Democrats represent districts that are (on average) more unequal than Republican districts suggests that the parties may have such divergent views on income inequality in part because their members (and constituents) have divergent experiences of income inequality.”

In a way, that’s a breakthrough concept because it attributes Republicans’ policy views not toward callous, unfeeling attitudes towards the poor or to racism — the main rhetorical thrust of the national Democratic Party rhetoric and its media allies these days — but to their different life experiences. Democrats are more sensitive to income inequality because they experience it more glaringly in their daily lives; Republicans are less sensitive because they see less of it.

There is, of course, one other possible explanation: Income inequality is worse in Democratic districts because Democratic districts tend to be governed at the state and local level by… Democrats. And, just as I argued in the previous post that Democratic policies lead to increased segregation as an unintended consequence, they also lead to more income inequality as an unintended consequence. Food for thought.

There is good news for Democrats — Virginia Democrats, at least — in Zuckerman’s data. The national trend aligning Democrats with inequality does not hold true in Virginia — the average Gini for three Dem districts, .429, is a hair lower than that for the eight GOP districts, .434. Indeed, the fifth most income-egalitarian district in the country is Virginia’s 11th, represented by Democrat Rep. Gerald Connolly!

income_inequality_va

Trickle-Down Economics Revealed

Who's laughing now?

Who’s laughing now?

by James A. Bacon

A generation ago, liberals mocked the so-called “trickle-down economics” of the Reagan administration, the idea that creating wealth for the rich would trickle down to the less affluent by way of expanded economic activity. While Reagan himself never used that term, his economic philosophy of tax cuts, tax-code reform and restrained federal spending did work as advertised. The 1980s were a period of great prosperity in which all income groups and ethnicities shared. The irony is that the trickle-down economics is a label more aptly applied to the policies of President Barack Obama. During O’s five years in office, the rich have gotten richer while the poor have fed on scraps. But you’ll never hear the term “trickle down” applied to Obama’s monetary policies.

There are many winners from the low interest rate policy implemented by the Federal Reserve Board with the full support of the Obama administration — most of them wealthy. One group is the “millionaires and billionaires” who benefit from rising stock and bond prices. Another is the owners of mortgages who have refinanced their debt at lower interest rates, in many cases saving hundreds of dollars a month. Needless to say, those with the highest incomes who can afford the most expensive houses benefit the most. The biggest beneficiary, of course, is the federal government, the world’s largest debtor, which saves on the order of $200 billion to $300 billion a year in interest payments on its $17 trillion debt. Finally, there is a modest trickle-down effect in the form of job creation in interest rate-sensitive industries like construction.

Of course, there are many losers, too — a mega-narrative that has gone largely unreported by the mainstream media. One group of losers is small business, which finds it more difficult to gain access to capital (it’s easier for banks to lend to the government). Another group consists of state and local governments whose retirement funds no longer generate the returns they were several years ago and now face chronic fiscal stress as they struggle to make up the difference. Fifteen years ago, for example, the Virginia pension system was fully funded. Today, even after major structural reforms, Virginia and its local governments still owe billions.

Then there are the little guys, especially the Baby Boomers who accumulated modest nest eggs to help support them in retirement. I have fulminated on this topic on and off since writing “Boomergeddon,” frustrated that the issue has drawn so little attention. But a Bloomberg News article published today in the Times-Dispatch (sorry, can’t find the link) shows the full dimension of the problem. Some key points:

A 65-year-old who wanted to pay for retirement with annuities tied to bonds needed 24% more wealth in 2013 than in 2005. National Bureau of economic Research President James Potera calculated in a research paper released in February. …

U.S. Treasury yields are at least 2 percentage points less than what they would be otherwise because of the Fed’s low-rate policies and stimulus programs, said William Ford, former Atlanta Fed president who wrote a 2011 paper estimating the impact on savers of monetary easing. That reduces their income by at least $280 billion annually, his analysis shows.

“The cost of low interest rates are being ignored,” Ford said. “It is killing savers, elderly savers who are living on life savings that have been conservatively invested.”

The Fed is engineering one of the greatest wealth transfers in American history — from the working-class and middle-class to the rich. The stock market has never been higher. Wall Street is doing better than ever. Bankers are still getting their big bonuses. And the little guys with meager savings are watching their pathetic little nest eggs lose value as inflation exceeds the income they can generate.

The extraordinary thing is that Obama then turns around and castigates the economic system for inequalities in wealth — the very same inequalities that he and former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (it’s too early to pin any blame on Janet Yellen yet) did to aggravate. Rather than undo the harm he has inflicted, Obama ask Americans to entrust him with even more power to “help” the poor and downtrodden. What I find mind-boggling is that this is not the delusion of a single man — it’s that liberals and leftists have so uniformly and gullibly bought into the delusion. They have become apologists for the very evil, income inequality, that they decry.

I suppose that’s inevitable. The political class always gravitates to “solutions” that entail the accumulation of more power for the political class. In Virginia, liberals’ idea is to expand the Medicaid entitlement, paid for the federal government with borrowed money. Why not? It’s “free” money. But it’s really not. Every billion dollars borrowed by the federal government requires more financial repression and more wealth transfer from savers to favored classes of borrowers, the foremost of which is the U.S. government. The favored classes do not include the poor and middle-class who rack up credit card debt, typically charges around 13% to 15%.

Liberals prattle about “social justice” and lobby for distractions like a higher minimum wage (which raises pay for some and destroys jobs for others) while aiding and abetting the trickle-down economics that leaves America’s less well-off with crumbs. The hypocrisy is almost too much to bear.

The Koch’s Bizarre Meddling in Chesterfield

koch brothersBy Peter Galuszka

The Koch brothers are back in the bucolic suburban tracts of Chesterfield County.

This time, their national group, Americans for Prosperity, has launched a robocall campaign to oppose a proposed real estate tax hike of 4.6 cents to help pay for $304 million renovations to schools or perhaps hire more teachers to bring classroom sizes back to pre-recession levels.

It’s apparently the second time that Americans for Prosperity have been on their case in Chesterfield. Last year, the hard-right group sent out bizarre “report cards” to ordinary citizens bashing them for not registering to vote.

In one famous local case, a recipient was actually a registered and active voter and greatly resented the idea that a multi-million dollar national outfit like the Americans for Prosperity was trying to monitor his personal business.

This time, Sean Lansing, the group’s Virginia director told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the goal is to “educate” residents on the issues, as if they are too stupid to understand local tax and classroom size problems that they probably know far better than some AEP appartchiki.

Chesterfield has caught itself in a bind because it hasn’t raised real estate taxes since 1990 despite its brisk growth rate. Voters in November voted down a 2 percent meals tax that could have raised money for schools. Henrico County voters, by contrast, narrowly approved a 4 percent meals tax and thus have no budget crisis that another tax hike is needed to resolve.

Admittedly, one of Chesterfield’s problems is bad planning. The staunchly Republican county has a long history of being very friendly to developers. Consequently, the county is in a constant service “catch up” mode. Need schools, such as Cosby High near some of the county’s largest residential developments, was already way overcrowded before it was finished a few years ago.

What is puzzling is what the Koch brothers are so interested in Chesterfield. It is hardly an election battleground. There is no strong Democratic or other opposing party. Yet with consummate arrogance, this cabal believes that residents need robocalls to “educate” them.

“Educate” them for what? If you want good schools and other services, someone has to pay for them. And as a Chesterfield resident for nearly 14 years, I can attest that taxes here are considerably lower than other places I have lived as an adult (Washington, New York, Chicago, suburban Cleveland, etc.).

Sarles Makes Pitch for Metro Subsidies

richard_sarles

Richard Sarles. Photo credit:flickr/erin_m.

by James A. Bacon

Last Wednesday Richard Sarles, chief executive officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), appeared in Richmond to brief the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) on the transit authority’s plans to meet the transportation needs of the fast-growing Washington region, including Northern Virginia, through 2025.

Sarles did not provide a specific figure that WMATA will be asking of Virginia and the localities served by the Metro and bus lines but he indicated that system-wide, the Momentum plan calls for boosting capital spending by $400 million to $500 million yearly above the $900 million a year it already spends. That sum would be divvied up between Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government.

The pitch was pure economic development. “We’ve looked at what we need to do to provide for growth over the next 15 to 20 years — it’s the equivalent of the City of Houston moving to the region,” Sarles said. “If we did nothing, the area would become so congested that economic development would stagnate.”

In his presentation, Sarles focused mainly on plans to upgrade the length of Metro trains to eight, the longest possible, by acquiring additional cars, power capacity and rail car storage. That one initiative would allow the system to carry 35,000 more passengers per hour during rush hour — the equivalent, he said, of building 18 new lanes of highways into the district.

The presentation was purely informational, to acquaint the CTB with WMATA’s plans and the need for state support. In separate remarks to the CTB, Jennifer Mitchell, director of Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transit, said the state already contributes $50 million a year to WMATA’s program to bring the aging and problem-plagued system to a condition of good repair. Additionally, Governor Terry McAuliffe has promised a $25 million down payment to the Momentum expansion program, matched by equal sums from Maryland and D.C. ”The goal will be working on a long-term funding agreement defining the state’s long-term funding commitment.”

WMATA trains and buses take 1.2 million trips off the road each weekday, said Sarles, relieving local jurisdictions of the need to construct at least 1,000 lane-miles of road and tens of thousands of parking spaces. Without Metro, Virginia would have to spend $1.3 billion on roads and $358 million on parking, he said. (Editorial comment: The sum for roads seems way low — could that be $1.3 billion per year on roads?)

A WMATA handout summarized the key components of WMATA’s expansion plan:

  • Eight-car trains. Expand the length of trains to eight cars, which will carry 35,000 more passengers per hour during rush hour.
  • Upgraded rail stations. Expand high-volume rail transfer stations in the Metro system core to ease congestion and accommodate new riders. This will include building underground pedestrian connections between select stations such as Farragut and Metro Center/Gallery Place in D.C. so riders can walk between stations rather than transfer on trains.
  • Priority corridor network (PCN). Completing the PCN will allow buses to bypass traffic congestion, moving 50% faster, saving passengers 3 to 4 minutes per trip and eliminating an additional 100,000 trips from roadways.
  • Blue line service. Restore peak-period Blue Line service between the Pentagon and Rosslyn stations through the construction of underground tracks. Adding five more trains per hour during the peak period will provide capacity for at least 4,000 passenger per direction.
  • Better information. Create one-stop information shopping so riders can plan, pay for and take transit trips seamlessly across the region. Also, stations will provide real-time travel information.
  • Bus fleet. Expand the bus fleet and maintenance facilities, enabling an extra 40,000 bus trips per day. (Yes, the document says bus trips, not bus passengers. Presumably, each trip would carry multiple passengers.)
  • New rail infrastructure. Build pocket tracks and crossovers to provide more flexibility to the system and respond to service disruptions. This investment could reduce operating costs to local jurisdictions. Continue reading

Someone Has to Worry about Tomorrow

Mercedies Harris

Mercedies Harris

Mercedies Harris, speaking to the Times-Dispatch, came as close as anyone to summing up what Virginia’s Medicaid debate is all about: “The system is crazy. They have got to stop worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow and deal with the people who need help today.”

The 53-year-old veteran and Waynesboro resident suffers from glaucoma, which, if it goes untreated, likely will lead to blindness. Harris has spent his meager savings, and he’s about to lose the house where he lives with his wife and a step-son who suffers from seizures. He applied for Medicaid but was turned down because he works and his income — $8.88 an hour — is too high. But he would qualify if Virginia expanded the program, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act and as proposed by Governor Terry McAuliffe and General Assembly Democrats.

With the federal government promising to pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion, it is hard to tell someone like Harris — who served his country in the military and, to all appearances, remains a contributing member of society — that, no, we can’t help you. And the idea of letting him go blind, so that he, too, becomes a total ward of the state, seems the height of folly.

Republicans insist that Medicaid must be modernized before expanding the program. To buttress their argument, they have nothing comparable to the stories of real-live people like Harris, just bloodless numbers. That’s why they could well lose the debate and McAuliffe could well get his way. But that doesn’t mean the Republicans are wrong. Someone has to worry about tomorrow.

The nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia cannot continue expanding the social safety net forever. Even after an increase in the federal income tax and even after the budget cuts imposed by sequestration, the federal budget is on a trajectory to hell. Here is the Congressional Budget Office‘s take on the next 10 years:

After [2015] deficits are projected to start rising—both in dollar terms and relative to the size of the economy—because revenues are expected to grow at roughly the same pace as GDP whereas spending is expected to grow more rapidly than GDP. In CBO’s baseline, spending is boosted by the aging of the population, the expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance, rising health care costs per beneficiary, and mounting interest costs on federal debt. By contrast, all federal spending apart from outlays for Social Security, major health care programs, and net interest payments is projected to drop to its lowest percentage of GDP since 1940.

And that’s an optimistic scenario. It assumes that the economy continues to grow in a slow-but-steady fashion without recession for what would amount to the longest business cycle in U.S. history. The longest recorded business cycle lasted less than 11 years. The current business cycle is almost five years old — another 10 years would make it the Methuselah of economic expansions. History suggests that the U.S. will suffer another recession and revenues, prone to wild gyrations due to its highly progressive structure, will plunge. The question then will be, can a president and Congress facing a fiscal crisis in 2024 be entrusted to keep the promises made by the president and Congress in 2014?

Without major policy changes, according to the CBO, the situation in 2024 will be dire: The deficit will exceed $1 trillion in a non-recessionary scenario. (One can only speculate what the deficit would be in a recession; it could exceed the $1.6 trillion-a-year level seen in the dark days of the last recession.) Ten years from now the national debt will blow past $21.6 trillion, interest payments on the debt will run $880 billion yearly, and the Social Security trust fund will be roughly seven years away from exhaustion. While entitlements and interest payments on the debt now amount to 66% of the budget, they will consume 77% in ten years (again, assuming no recession).

If a recession occurs in the early 2020s, the fiscal landscape will be far worse than it was in 2008 when the economy cratered. The United States will be forced either to cut discretionary spending (which includes the vast regulatory apparatus of the federal government plus the military), cut entitlements or cut both. The only way to avoid that fate in 2024 will be to start cutting entitlements sooner, not later. Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading