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West Virginia - Economic Justice in Hard Times: Then and Now

West Virginia - Economic Justice in Hard Times: Then and Now

Rick Wilson, director of AFSC’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project

Rome is burning—
no time to fiddle

In the grip of the Great Depression, as 89 percent of Lincoln County residents struggled to survive on meager relief payments and 6,000 children in McDowell County could not go to school because they didn’t have clothing, West Virginia’s democratic governors resisted federal initiatives aimed at stimulating the economy.

In An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression, Jerry B. Thomas relates how Gov. Guy Kump spoke out against a national “spending orgy” as he withdrew rural road projects, reduced relief rolls and slashed payments for desperate families.

Monongalia County relief director Alice Davis, who had worked with the American Friends Service Committee’s Appalachian Relief program, spoke up for families living on the edge of survival. “There is a limit to human endurance…I sometimes think that it would be kinder to let them all starve quickly rather than to keep them barely alive for years and then turn them loose with permanent disabilities due to malnutrition. Perhaps the physical end of it is not so bad as the mental and spiritual. I wonder how many of us would bear up under the conditions that we impose on our clients in the coal camps?” 

Current political leaders in West Virginia are much more receptive to President Obama’s stimulus plan than their counterparts of the 1930s, but every now and then they need to be prodded to take full advantage in order to help West Virginia’s struggling families.

That’s where Rick Wilson, director of AFSC’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project, steps in. As one of the leaders of a group of state labor, religious and community organizations, informally known as the “Coalition of the Willing,” Rick helped develop a set of principles aimed at making life better for the state’s most vulnerable residents by protecting investments in education, infrastructure and services for low-income working families.

Now they are actively encouraging the state to take advantage of President Obama’s stimulus package to boost economic activity. Rick was part of a group that met with Senator Jay Rockefeller and the staff of Senator Robert Byrd to discuss support of the president’s federal budget priorities. 

In the state legislature, the coalition was successful in calling attention to and leading support for a bill to save the West Virginia unemployment compensation system from insolvency and to modernize it through the use of stimulus money. A bill to set aside $2.4 million in leftover economic development grants for neighborhood stabilization and affordable housing in minority communities also sailed through the legislature. 

Still awaiting the next legislative session are coalition-supported proposals for a state Earned Income Tax Credit, expansion of Medicaid to the uninsured and establishment of a system of Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts.

Echoing Alice Davis, Rick said, “Hard data shows that way more people die each year from relative poverty than armed conflict. One estimate is that the ratio is 180:1.” Because the economic crisis is hurting so many people worldwide, Rick said he will continue to devote his efforts to economic recovery and sustainability.