Home > Essays > To Paraphrase Tolstoy: All Affluent Communities Are Alike… And So Is Each Poor Community

To Paraphrase Tolstoy: All Affluent Communities Are Alike… And So Is Each Poor Community

June 15, 2021

I live in an affluent community that is like many others. We have a thriving college, an excellent medical facility, a wide array of retail options, a beautiful setting, lots of restaurants, a highly functioning local government that keeps the roads maintained, a diverse array of small locally owned businesses, and thriving civic organizations that keep our public squares full of flowers, volunteers for community service abundant, and non-profits’ coffers full. In traveling around the country, I’ve driven through many communities like one I live in…and they are remarkably homogenous whether they are located on the seacoast, in the mountains, or in the suburbs. They are full of college graduates who made a choice to live in the community and are willing to provide the resources needed to ensure the community remains vibrant.

I just finished reading Eduardo Porter’s NYTimes story about McDowell County in West Virginia, a community that relied on coal to thrive for a few generations but now finds itself a hollow shell of its former self now that the coal mines are empty. As I read it I was struck by the similarities between McDowell County and other poor rural outposts I am familiar with in the Appalachian region of Maryland, the Rust Belt, the woodlands of Northern New England, and mill towns across the country. Coal mines left McDowell County just as the factories left communities across the Rust Belt, hill farms left Appalachia, wood mills left the North Country, and a host of small mills left New England communities. In their wake, the communities left behind lack the tax base to bounce back and compete for residents with their affluent neighbors. The unskilled laborers who made middle class wages when the factories and small farms were in place have no jobs except service jobs that pay a quarter of what they earned before. And, like McDowell County in WV, small towns turn to prisons and recreation to create work for people.

There are no easy answers to the question of how to restore communities that are hollowed out when factories leave. McDowell County’s collaborative effort between schools, economic development offices, and social service agencies looks promising, but as Mr. Porter’s article notes, there’s one big hitch. Absent meaningful employment that pays more than a subsistence wage the coal-less County’s death spiral will continue.

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