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MAP TO PROSPERITY: Is West Virginia similar to other states?

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe
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    Thursday, January 2 2014 11:59 AM EST2014-01-02 16:59:08 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
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Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

West Virginia is a rural, natural resource-rich state, with a mountainous topography. In many ways, West Virginia is similar to other rural states, but the comparison can only go so far. 

There is a historical link to agriculture and self-sufficiency. The population density is low in the majority of the counties. A certain isolation exists due to lack of major urban areas and a dispersed transportation system. There is a frustration related to an urban bias at the national level and the unrelenting global economy forcing changes to rural areas which they find hard to counter balance. There is a brain drain with the educated youth leaving for opportunities elsewhere. There is increasing difficulty of the next generation earning a living wage in their rural hometowns. 

West Virginia is similar in its efforts to address these issues with most other rural states, whether it be eastern Kentucky, rural Alabama, Oklahoma, North Dakota or Mississippi. However, the well-worn saying, "Thank God for Mississippi" is becoming less and less appropriate as all of the above mentioned states move forward with their own designs for the future. 

But in many ways West Virginia is uniquely different, beginning with its creation out of war-torn Virginia. The Trans Alleghany counties had a different view of themselves and their economy. They looked to the West and the North for commerce as Virginia never invested in the infrastructure to tie western Virginia into the expanding economies of the Tidewater and Piedmont areas. 

The fatalistic view of self-independence and the inability to control outside events developed as West Virginians began to view themselves as pawns of the capital-intensive northern cities. Land ownership patterns emanating back to the Virginia land grants of the 1700s kept huge swaths of land out of local ownership. A combative approach to solving problems became the standard way of doing business. Labor-management disputes followed the path of "winner take all." The boom and bust economy of a natural resource state began to take its toll. 

Without adequate internally generated capital and inadequate investment back into public infrastructure, West Virginia began to be satisfied with its economy growing at a rate of half the national average. Transfer payments from various government programs gradually represented a larger and larger proportion of the state's gross domestic product. Workforce participation declined and the state settled into a defensive posture of blaming everyone else for its ills. 

Although the above description is presented to make a point, the reality of the situation is much more complicated and multi-layered. However to continue the discussion, The World Bank in Washington, D.C. issued its World Development Report 2006 titled ‘Equity and Development," and it offered an interesting perspective on how West Virginia's problems are similar to developing countries or regions within countries. West Virginia's problems with self-perception, land ownership patterns and perceived control by outside forces are not dissimilar to developing areas. Perhaps the better question to ask is not whether West Virginia is similar to other states, but is it similar to developing countries in certain regards? 

The World Bank report focuses on the role of equity and its two parts:

 

  • The first being equal opportunity, which the report defines as a person's achievements, should be determined by his or her talents and effort. 
  • The second principle in the definition is the avoidance of deprivation of outcomes, which means those issues relating to health, education and access to goods and services. 

 

Although the report is a theoretical discussion, the long and the short of it is that West Virginia's problems and opportunities are not dissimilar to those of other developing areas around the world. We have a distinct advantage in having more capacity, capable leadership and a budget crisis to provide the focus and immediacy to capture new opportunities.