McDowell County, West Virginia is a collection of small cities and unincorporated communities on the southern border of the state. It was once the region that produced the most coal in the entire United States (Visit Southern WV). Coal is extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth as a natural resource before being refined into industrial metals. The steel and iron made from McDowell County coal were vital in meeting the demand for those metals in World War I and World War II (Visit Southern WV). Trains, electricity, and heat were all primarily dependent on coal beginning with the Industrial Revolution and spanning over half of the 20th century. Spikes in the amount of traded coal have occurred as recently as the mid-2000s. Mcdowell county’s population during the peak of coal production fluctuated between 90,000 and 100,000 people during the years between 1930 and 1950 (1950 Census)(McDowell County). The population as of April 1, 2020, was 19,111 (McDowell County). The major decreases in population size and economic stability have been attributed to multiple factors; drug use and the coal industry being the primary offenders. McDowell County reported the most drug-induced deaths of any other county in the United States in 2015 (Rudd et al.).
The coal industry dictates the level of employment in Mcdowell County, and quite a few physical battles have been waged between the miners and coal companies since the turn of the 20th century. As the coal industry smolders out and corporations move their businesses elsewhere, McDowell County’s economy absorbs the impact. The United States Department of Agriculture considers McDowell County a food desert - a region where a majority of the population has low access to supermarkets or large grocery stores (Hudson). The purpose of this case study is to identify and analyze cited statistics from McDowell County, West Virginia by utilizing the community capitals framework. Doing so will highlight which aspects of the capitals have played a part in the development of social problems and which aspects can build a solution.
McDowell County possesses many characteristics of the capitals framework within its communities. Natural Capital, by far, is the capital that has maintained the most influence on the region. Coal mining is the identity associated with McDowell County. Natural Capital in West Virginia had such a powerful influence in the early to mid 20th century that it shaped educational, social, and healthcare institutions (Server)(Wheeler).
Social capital has deep roots in McDowell County although it was long ago when mutual trust and shared identity were common. Today, social capital is nearly nonexistent in the region as crime increases, poverty becomes more widespread, and collective identity is reserved to hope of escaping the pressure of the coal industry’s labor monopolization (Wheeler). However, that glimmer of hope is not insignificant - social capital was utilized to empower the largest and most effective insurrection in the United States since the Civil War (Wheeler). A clear distinction in the community’s use of social capital came when coal miners from nearby counties joined the original effort based on a shared identity. Social capital was generated through bonding social capital and bridging social capital considering that a social movement was developed within their community and expanded among other groups with a shared identity (Flora et al.). The movement was curbed through institutional sanctions on the group protesting the norm of long hours and low pay along with a lack of safety. The potential for revitalized social capital is present in this region.
Human capital in McDowell county is diminished by the lack of a strong foundation in cultural capital. Without development in human capital, built capital and financial capital will continue to suffer. McDowell County has poor infrastructure and only 28.2% of citizens 16 years of age and older were in the civilian labor force (US Census Bureau). The significance of poor human capital is evident in the fact that McDowell County had the highest rate of drug-induced overdose deaths of any county in the United States in 2015 (Malatras). Social inequality generated by the absence of cultural capital has decimated the county as up-and-coming members of the community have little to no chance of participating in social bridging. The effectiveness of shared cultural capital is based on the reality that there can be no development of social bonding capital, and therefore social bridging capital, without it (Flora et al.). As was previously addressed, although there is potential for each of the capitals to thrive in this region, there is insufficient opportunity to harness it.
Prescription opioid abuse, the effect of the coal industry, and poverty are the three most detrimental social problems that have plagued this region. These issues are directly linked to the neglect of natural and cultural capital in the pursuit of financial capital. As previously mentioned, McDowell County once boasted a population of 100,000 and distributed resources that impacted the largest wars in modern human history. However, the mass migration of tens of thousands of coal miners away from the area has left McDowell county impoverished. Generation Z and Millennials are feeling the impact even more so than their forefathers; 2019 Census data shows that although 1 in 3, or 33.2%, of McDowell County residents are living in poverty, residents aged 18-34 make up 51.8% of those living below the poverty line compared to 30.3% of residents who were 34-65 years of age (US Census Bureau).
Natural and financial capital were prioritized in this region with origins in the fact that McDowell County became vastly populated as a result of the coal industry and the job opportunities it offered. Cultural capital was neglected in pursuit of other capitals, leading to massive inequality there. Long hours, no age restrictions, and low pay contributed to the decrease in cultural capital that began a downward spiral. Education, health, and cultural competence are second in priority to coal production. Furthermore, the coal industry holds a monopoly on a majority of the few jobs available that offer a living wage, which singularizes the set of skills that most McDowell County residents are expected to learn. Cultural capital will continue to be nonexistent here while there are no cultural expectations that success is likely outside of that requested skill set. Financial capital exists in the region but the citizens mostly produce it through labor rather than collecting its benefits.
Drug addiction is a key component in understanding the range of social problems in this region. Its spread has been facilitated by the absence of access to social and human capital. Addiction occurs when the brain’s reward system is overtaken by the need for a specific substance or feeling that acts as an auxiliary for a human need that can’t be achieved, like a strong relationship with both parents. In McDowell County, social capital was built through the Protestant work ethic. When managed successfully, human capital would naturally follow as social capital was increased through positive perception in the community associated with labor. Employment was a major norm for men that dictated how honorably they were viewed within their community while women exhausted their labor at home in the form of raising large numbers of children, cleaning, cooking, gardening, and whatever other chores existed around the property. Only around 4,000 residents out of over 18,000 were actively employed in the last survey of 2019; meaning more than 3 out of 4 people are not employed in a region where labor was once the primary source of identity - compared to the current national average of 3.8% (US Census Bureau). The correlation with drug addiction is clear. Generations of residents whose parents identified with their work have been tasked with navigating an identity that has no modern cultural capital to draw from or social capital to bestow. Human capital won’t be present without the development of those two capitals as a prerequisite. McDowell County residents have no cultural capital and therefore no ability to increase their access to social or human capital.
Natural Capital has created a social problem in McDowell County due to the nature of privatization. Even though there is an abundance of coal, laborers and residents struggle with poverty and health. Most of the benefits derived from local labor are enjoyed by corporations and executives so that the financial capital does not circulate through the local economy. According to the New York Times, from 2004 to 2016, coal executive pay increased 500% on average while coal miner pay increased at a rate of 11% (Tabuchi). Greed combined with the abundance of natural capital has resulted in major inequality, a characteristic of poor access to cultural capital.
While labor monopolization and addiction are major contributors to the downfall of McDowell County in terms of population and capital, these problems also allow for straightforward solutions. Even though US coal consumption peaked around 2008 it has been on a steady decline since that time. The salary of one top coal industry CEO would fund the retraining of every West Virginia coal miner making a transition into renewable energy jobs (Tabuchi).
Some residents, including former industry employees and their children, identify with coal so strongly that they refuse to support any measure that would limit or erase the influence of coal companies. Political capital has been an effective weapon of the industry for over a century regardless of strong social labor movements that transcended barriers of the time. The miners were primarily immigrants and poor Americans who lived in communities made up of company-owned homes and were paid in a currency that was only valid in company stores located within the coal camp (Timberlake).
Total control was maintained over the lives of the miners living in coal camps and private law enforcement physically threw out those who didn’t abide by the company policies that dictated norms (Timberlake). The ensuing labor movement was strengthened by a shared identity among social groups combined with the support of trade unions that strongly identified with workers too. For political capital to be increased contemporarily, those roots of shared identity and future must develop into a response to the amount of political capital that coal companies have access to. The reality is that increasing social capital in McDowell County isn’t easy, but it can be done if social movements reminiscent of those in the past are utilized to force an expedited change in the balance of political capital. Unfortunately, West Virginia legislation and its enforcement have evolved heavily in favor of the industry, which justifies why developing political capital isn’t a realistic option for residents. To be even more clear - the last time that a major social movement in West Virginia aimed to reduce the coal industry’s impact, they were met with assault, shooting from militarized weapons, and even decommissioned military aircraft that dropped homemade bombs down on to miners (AP Corporate Archives). 16 people died as a result of the fighting (AP Corporate Archives).
The plague of addiction that has blanketed McDowell County comes as a result of unbridled access to what Hope and Help WV classifies as prescription opioids prescribed to opioid-naive patients (West Virginia Board of Pharmacy). Paired with the high rates of unemployment and poverty, the factors for a crisis have always been present in this region. West Virginia is considered to be one of the top 3 states in depression rate along with Oregon and Maine. No in-depth analysis needs to take place to understand why opioids would end up having such a profound effect on a population battling identity loss, poverty, and a mental health crisis that surpasses the capability of any modern US state healthcare system. Controlled medications such as benzodiazepine relax the user and mediate the amount of anxiety and stress that they feel, but are also inherently addictive. According to Hope and Help, in 2019, 43% of residents were estimated to have a controlled substance prescription, 31.5% with an opioid prescription, and 16.5% with a benzodiazepine prescription (West Virginia Board of Pharmacy). There is nothing organic about the drug epidemic that now consumes the region; it is a result of a deliberate and meticulous campaign by pharmaceutical companies who wished to earn more profit at the expense of already-impoverished communities. Their poverty, created through the drive for financial capital and the abuse of natural capital by the coal industry, was exploited even further by overprescribing narcotics. Any initial campaign that would aim to eliminate opioid dependence in McDowell County would also be taking on corporate interests in the area that render citizens powerless.
There is existing litigation against Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson and Johnson, and Endo Health Solutions brought on by the State of West Virginia Attorney General’s Office that alleges these corporations violated multiple laws when downplaying the addictive effects of painkillers to doctors who would later ignite the crisis through overprescription (Adams). The conversations are on the verge of a settlement as 54 out of 55 West Virginia counties have agreed to the terms so far, where an organization will be founded and funded by the State in order to distribute the settlement funds to affected communities. The primary solution that should be considered involves more legal action; pharmaceutical and coal companies that statistically played a part in addiction and poverty in McDowell County to advance their financial capital should be responsible for restoring the lost capital in the region. Built capital created through financial capital would have the most significant impact on this community. Schools, businesses, and medical facilities are of essential priority to revamp the cultural capital of McDowell County. The importance of creating stable labor opportunities (such as the labor needed to install built capital) can not be overstated in these communities. The Attorney General of West Virginia could affect significant change in these communities by ensuring that these corporations have no influence over the recovery of local communities and by utilizing that financial capital specifically to undo the damage caused by their pursuit of profit.
The goal of this case study, reiterated, is to identify and analyze statistics from McDowell County, West Virginia using the community capitals framework. McDowell County holds many rural communities which, although containing many residential structures, were primarily developed to ensure labor was available in a rural area to extract natural resources. There are urban centers located throughout the county such as Welch, Bradshaw, and Iaeger. Identified capitals that have the potential to be expanded upon include natural capital and social capital. Social capital has historically been mobilized in the region to resist the further reduction of human and labor rights. Natural capital and financial capital have played significant roles in the underdevelopment of McDowell County. Capitals that have the potential to revitalize the community include financial capital, built capital, and restructuring of access to social capital that doesn’t require a significant commitment to labor by the individual. Applying the Community Capitals Framework allows for the organization of social problems and their causes into segments of an “equation” that can be arranged in order to more easily identify the structure of social problems. The organization from the framework is crucial in forming solutions that consider the entire context of the community without critical issues becoming more or less important. Rather, CCF allows for a linear analysis that highlights which capitals will be most effective in a certain order. Rather than prioritizing one or two solutions, the order of the solution is prioritized so that every capital and its effects must be reviewed and considered equally. For example, instead of hypothesizing that McDowell county needs more jobs, the CCF identifies preceding and succeeding factors that give context and direction to the process that will be required to solve not only that specific social problem but its lingering subsidiaries as well.
Based on the capital available to McDowell County citizens, a settlement or legal obligation with the pharmaceutical and coal industries where the stolen financial capital can be recirculated through the community is the most realistic contemporary capital solution. The extremely poor infrastructure of McDowell County requires that built capital be prioritized once financial capital is accessed. Without financial resolution between the State and these industries, there is little chance that built capital will increase, leaving residents to remain in indefinite poverty while unemployed. If built capital is realized, it opens a multitude of possibilities to see social, human, and cultural capital make a comeback in McDowell County, akin to the days when 100,000 laborers and their families with a shared identity called the region home and contemptuously battled corporate interests. Personally utilizing the CCF in a region with deep emotional ties has underscored its validity as an objectively useful sociological tool.
Adams, Steven Allen. “Road to Recovery: West Virginia AG Morrisey announces plan for opioid settlement funds.” News and Sentinel, 17 February 2022, https://www.newsandsentinel.com/news/local-news/2022/02/road-to-recovery-west-virginia-ag-morrisey-announces-plan-for-opioid-settlement-funds/. Accessed 4 March 2022.
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Malatras, Jim. “By The Numbers The Growing Drug Epidemic in New York.” Rockefeller Institute of Government, https://rockinst.org/issue-area/growing-drug-epidemic-new-york/. Accessed 1 March 2022.
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Rudd, Rose A., et al. “Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths — United States, 2000–2014.” CDC, 1 January 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6450a3.htm. Accessed 5 February 2022.
Tabuchi, Hiroko. “Coal Jobs Prove Lucrative, but Not for Those in the Mines (Published 2017).” The New York Times, 2 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/climate/coal-jobs-prove-lucrative-but-not-for-those-in-the-mines.html. Accessed 2 March 2022.
Timberlake, Richard H. “Private Production of Scrip - Money in the Isolated Community.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, vol. 19, no. 4, 1987, pp. 437-447. JSTOR.
US Census Bureau. “US Census Bureau QuickFacts: McDowell County, West Virginia.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2019, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/mcdowellcountywestvirginia. Accessed 3 March 2022.
Visit Southern West Virginia. “McDowell County West Virginia Travel and Tourism.” Visit Southern West Virginia, https://visitwv.com/our-area/mcdowell/. Accessed 4 February 2022.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Albert Hoffman