Something exciting is happening in McDowell County, West Virginia. There, in what used to be coal country, the American Federation of Teachers is leading a project called Reconnecting McDowell. It’s a program initiated over a decade ago by Gayle Manchin, wife of now Senator (then Governor) Joe, and it makes you think long and hard about her husband.
In 2011 Gayle Manchin invited Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, to convene a big alliance of residents, non-profits, businesses, and government to address McDowell’s pressing problems of which there were many, the most fundamental being loss of population. From a population of over 122,000 in the 1960s, McDowell was down to around 20,000 in the 2020 Census. Welch, the county seat, had just 3,590 survivors, and they were aging. Remaining residents were disproportionately elders, grandparents raising kids, thanks to Medicare and Medicaid.
Without people, there can be no development. Employers, big box stores – they may come, but they won’t stay, Mayor Harold McBride told us. McDowell had a Walmart. It closed after just 10 years. Welch attracted a new prison, but its 600 workers live elsewhere. Schools face a chronic lack of teachers for lack of housing.
This June, thanks to Reconnecting McDowell, a new multi-story building will open. According to Weingarten, it’s the first new construction in downtown Welch in 50 years. Renaissance Village, as it’s called, will provide teachers with affordable local housing, and mom and pop businesses a place to open new stores. The hope is that student by student and shop by shop, Welch will grow and its seniors will get some company.
Which brings me back to Joe. While federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid have literally kept this place alive, Joe Manchin calls new federal programs inflationary. He’s voted against extending the child tax credit and opposed the Democrats’ Build Back Better program which would have invested thousands of dollars in kids, parents, and teachers through funding Pre K and childcare and elder programs — all of which he calls that dread word.
And that leaves me thinking about inflation. Inflating, not profits and prices, but people’s spirits and possibilities, as the Reconnecting McDowell program seeks to, is working. School attendance rates are up, drop-out rates are down. Inflation of that sort, in a place like McDowell, seems to be just what people need. We’ll see how it plays out. In the meantime, let’s reclaim that word, snatch it back and redefine it. Let’s re-inflate! The people of McDowell seem to be speaking. Is Manchin listening? The Senator, that is?
You can watch our report on Reconnecting McDowell on some 300 PBS stations around the country, or watch it on YouTube. Find all the information and subscribe to the free podcast at lauraflanders.org.