Thursday, August 27, 2015

What Happens When You Don't Own the Land


Jack Corn/Rural Archive Appalachian deep coal miners headed to work.

We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. — Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941), U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louisville, KY

The democracy thing?  It isn’t working. Here, our democracy is being held hostage by our capitalism. — Nina McCoy, high school teacher, Martin County, KY

The national broadcast media rarely grapples with the interplay of concentrated wealth and power and the functioning of democracy when it attempts to explain the widespread, stubborn poverty in rural Central Appalachia. 

The recent ABC 20/20 program The Hidden America—Children of the Mountains which followed for two years four children growing up in poverty in Eastern Kentucky, drew 11 million viewers. According to ABC “thousands offered to get involved and make a difference.”  This wasn’t the first network spotlight on Appalachia’s children to evoke a strong reaction. Charles Kuralt’s Christmas in Appalachia, which aired in December 1964 and focused on eastern Kentucky, lit up the CBS switchboard with offers of help.  

Both of these documentaries attempted to interpret a piece of the poverty puzzle by putting faces on poverty and showing how poverty is lived at the level of individual and family relationships. Inevitably unemployment, lack of education, poor health care, drug addiction, and inadequate housing are the reasons given by the networks for why there is persistent poverty in Appalachia. What they don’t attempt to explain is the century-old political/economic famework in which this individual poverty plays out.  University of New Hampshire sociologist Cynthia Duncan, who has spent her career studying rural poverty, refers to this context as “these larger histories of deliberate underinvestment for control, to maintain vulnerability.”  

Appalachia’s rural poor have been put under sociological and psychological microscopes many times over the last 150 years. Basically, two theories have been offered for their poverty.  The culture of poverty theory directs attention inward to the capacities and habits of the poor themselves.  In contrast, a structural theory focuses attention on the relationship between poverty and the corporate economy within Appalachia – especially in its coal regions.  Appalachian sociologist Helen Lewis drew a sharp dividing line between the two theories by stating, "In simple terms it [the cause of poverty] is either fatalism or the coal industry."    Appalachian Voices This map shows the relationship between coal surface mining and poverty. The red Xs are mined areas. The darker blue counties are those with the highest rates of poverty.

Kentucky attorney and author Harry Caudill began raising a warning about the region’s uneasy relationship with the coal industry in his 1963 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Despite some cultural stereotypes that upset regional activists and a good many of his neighbors, Caudill’s popular book, more than any other vehicle at the time, moved the poverty discussion from folk culture to issues of absentee corporate control of the region’s land and minerals. Caudill’s work opened the door for a flood of young academics and activists to look at the political economy of the region and the cozy relationship between the dominant industry and the public officials shaping economic, tax, and environmental policy.  

A theory centering on coal as a major contributor to poverty in the Appalachian coal region looks something like this:

The region’s immense wealth found in timber and coal has never benefitted local communities because it is owned largely by out-of-state corporate interests, resulting in the region’s wealth being transferred to urban centers outside the region.  Despite extensive land and mineral holdings, the coal industry historically paid a pittance in taxes, leaving the region deprived of basic municipal services and adequately-funded schools.

Builder Levy This is Builder Levy's photo of a coal camp near Grundy, Virginia, in the early 1970s. After establishing central Appalachia as predominantly a one-industry economy, the coal industry mechanized, destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs and leaving the unemployed with few alternatives but to flee the region or stay and live with intermittent or no formal employment. To expand profit margins, coal companies increased strip-mining and mountain top removal techniques, further reducing jobs and leaving the region a legacy of economic and environmental ruin.

Taken together, these factors help to explain poor people in a rich land.   This is not to suggest that coal is the only reason for poverty in Central Appalachia. Poverty is prevalent in areas without extractive industries as well. In fact, 80% of the world’s population exists on less than $10 a day so worldwide, prosperity is more of an aberration than poverty.  Legendary urbanist and economist Jane Jacobs suggested that “to seek the ‘causes’ of to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.” Even if Jacobs is correct, there are conditions and policies that exacerbate or ameliorate the impact of poverty and to depict poverty without taking into account structural issues related to the political economy is to present what Appalachia historian Ron Eller refers to as “a pattern of critical but superficial commentary” about the region.

With even a cursory glance, socioeconomic data on eastern Kentucky paints a dramatic picture of a connection between coal country and poverty.  The two dozen coal producing counties consistently have the highest overall poverty rates, the highest percentage of children in poverty, lowest median income, the lowest high school graduation rates in the state and a substance abuse problem that is eroding the area’s social and economic fabric.  A more focused look at the history of the eastern Kentucky coal region illuminates in greater detail the impact of coal on the Central Appalachian economy.   

Losing the minerals

Appalachian Regional Commission The counties in red above are considered economically distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Most of the Eastern Kentucky coalfields are distressed according to the federal agency. By the mid 1800s eastern industrialists realized that eastern Kentucky was abundantly rich in timber and coal.  The timber industry moved in first, removing virtually all of eastern Kentucky’s virgin timber by the early 1900s.  In the 1880s John C.C. Mayo, a Paintsville, Kentucky, school teacher, began buying mineral rights and selling them for three or four times his purchase price, eventually receiving backing from industrialists. After 20 years Mayo had obtained mineral rights for thousands upon thousands of acres, often persuading landowners to part with their timber and coal for as little as 10 cents an acre or as much as a dollar an acre for the more resistant land owners.  At the time of his death, Mayo was alleged to be the wealthiest man in Kentucky.

Although Mayo is the most famous, there were others buying mineral rights at the time as well and it should be noted that many of these mineral leases were shrouded in controversy from the outset. Due to a variety of uncoordinated titling processes coupled with unscrupulous land speculation practices, it is said, only half jokingly, that more land was titled in Kentucky than existed. Additionally, the validity of many conveyances was questioned when mineral buyers possessed mineral deeds “signed” with a surface owner’s mark or X when the surface owner could read and write, raising questions whether the land owner had been involved in the deal at all.  Dubious title or not, with the coming of the railroad, the lease holders began to exploit their leases. 

KFTC The broadform deed, which allowed large-scale strip mining on leases signed nearly a century before, was finally overturned by Kentucky voters in 1988. The citizens' group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth led the campaign to restrict the use of these deeds to allow stripping. Much of the minerals were obtained through a conveyance called the broad form deed. This type of deed, which would later become the center of great controversy, allowed the mineral owner to extract coal or other minerals by any means “necessary or convenient.”  While other states construed the broad form deed to refer only to coal extraction methods existing at the time the deed was executed, Kentucky courts would rule that the broad form deed allowed large-scale, mechanized strip mining, a practice inconceivable in the late 1800s. This ruling allowed coal companies to destroy surface land even if the surface owner objected.  It took an amendment to the state constitution in 1988 to change this law. 

Dependence on King Coal

From its entry into Central Appalachia, the coal industry controlled virtually every aspect of miners’ lives.  The companies built the coal camps. They  owned the houses miners lived in and frequently the stores where they shopped. The companies hired the doctors who tended their workers and, until outlawed, they paid miners partially or totally in scrip that could be used only at stores owned by the coal company.  Miners, historians report, were frequently expected to vote as the company wanted. Dependency and vulnerability go a long way toward fostering loyalty.  

This is not to deny the importance of well-documented and frequently corrupt political machines at the county level.  These machines, often dominated by one or two families, used control over federal work and commodity programs along with county job patronage to create a power base.  As long as they did nothing to damage coal’s economic interests there was little interference from the industry. In fact, some local political leaders became involved in the coal business so that political and economic interests overlapped.

Coal has always been afflicted with dramatic boom and bust cycles and in the early days even the good times could be precarious.  The 1950s brought an even more dramatic downturn.  The 1950 wage agreement between the coal industry and the United Mine Workers of America allowed the rapid mechanization of the mines, which both sides knew would drastically reduce the number of mining jobs.  For this concession the remaining union miners were to receive increased wages as productivity increased with mechanization. Because these terms were imposed upon all operators regardless of the size of the operation, the result – and most would say the intended result—was to drive out the small mines, leaving the large companies in control of the market.  The 1950 agreement, combined with the widespread conversion of home heating to oil and gas along with the railroads’ move to diesel fuel, devastated the Central Appalachian job market. Kentucky historians Lowell Harrison and James Klotter in A New History of Kentucky report that between 1950 and 1965 mechanization accounted for the loss of 70% of Kentucky’s underground mining jobs.  Between 1950 and 1960 there was a net out-migration from Kentucky’s Appalachian counties of 340,000 people, 32% of the area’s population.   

 A final seismic jolt to mining jobs and the Central Appalachian landscape began in the 1970s as surface mining gained a permanent foothold in coal extraction thanks in great part to a partnership between the industry and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  TVA’s early accomplishments and the widespread loyalty engendered by those accomplishments were hardly a harbinger of policies to come.  In its early days, TVA hired miners blacklisted for union activity, built dams that averted devastating flood damage estimated at twice the cost of dam construction, planted two hundred million trees, created parks and recreation areas, and brought electricity to homes and factories in rural areas.    William Strode Protests of coal strip mining have been going on for nearly 50 years. Here the Widow Ollie Combs is carried off her property on November 23, 1965, when she attempted to block strip mining machines.

As early as the mid 1950s, however, TVA began shaping the path for strip mining’s dramatic growth in what Appalachian journalist Jim Branscome would later refer to as “TVA’s bitter harvest.”  Reporting in the 1970s for the weekly Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky, Branscome documented how the agency gave strip mining a foothold in the region by providing long-term contracts for surface mined coal, by its willingness to buy non-union coal, and by building mine-mouth steam plants on or near strip mines. TVA became the nation’s largest coal buyer, with 72% of its coal coming from Kentucky, half of it from strip mines.  Additionally, 83% of the coal was supplied by a dozen companies, all owned by oil or metal conglomerates.  Many coalfield residents must have felt that the TVA experiment, which historian Henry Steele Commager once called the “greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America,” had gone extraordinarily awry.  

In 1920, 784,000 miners in the U.S. produced a little over 658 millions tons of coal.  By 2006, only 82,595 U.S. miners (14,000 in eastern Kentucky) were needed to produce over 1 billion tons of coal. While the United Mine Workers of America at one time represented 75% of U.S. miners, today the union represents about 28.5% of the nation’s miners. There is not one coal miner working under a UMWA contract in Eastern Kentucky.

The Impact of Land Ownership 

Land ownership isn’t usually offered as a mitigating factor in Appalachian poverty, but ownership of surface and minerals determines where people live and where they work and whether land is destroyed or preserved, polluted or left pristine.  In Appalachia, ownership is directly related to who has power and how that power is exercised.  

A startling example of the power of land ownership occurred in April 1977 when major flooding, exacerbated by strip mining practices, left thousands homeless in southern West Virginia and southeastern Kentucky.  Relief trailers stood empty for lack of land to put them on and the government refused to seize corporate land for this purpose. Out of this tragedy, however, a region-wide coalition, the Appalachian Alliance, formed and put the question of land ownership high on its agenda. With support from private foundations and the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Alliance initiated the Appalachian Land Ownership Study in 1979.  It remains one of the few efforts to explore land ownership patterns and their impacts on economic and community development. It is the only one that focused on such a broad area of the Appalachian region (covering 80 counties in 6 states), coordinated and carried out by activists, academics, and community residents.   

The study was released in April 1981 and the findings were stark: Of the 13 million acres included in the survey, nearly 75 percent of the surface acres and 80 percent of the minerals were absentee owned.  Forty percent of the land and 70 percent of the mineral rights were held by corporations – mostly coal and other energy companies along with some timber interests.  One percent of the owners controlled 53 percent of the land. 

The link between land control and longstanding problems with insufficient local tax revenues and public services became evident when the study revealed that 53 percent of the land generated only 13 percent of the property taxes.  

Time Magazine President Lyndon Johnson visited Tom Fletcher in Martin County, Kentucky, to announce his War on Poverty in 1964. The situation in Martin County, Kentucky, is particularly instructive. Long one of the poorest counties in the nation, it was here in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson declared his “war on poverty” from Tom Fletcher’s front porch. While poverty rates in Martin County have dropped from 56 percent at the time of Johnson’s visit to 35.8% in 2007, it remains one of the nation’s poorest counties. Transfer payments represent 39% of personal income in the county. Nationally in 2002, transfer payments amount to 14% of personal income.  

At the time of the Land Ownership Study, not only were Martin County’s residents poor, local government was starving. The county’s largest landowner was Pocahontas-Kentucky, a subsidiary of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, which owned 47,869 acres or one-third of the county’s surface and over half its minerals. Despite its vast ownership, however, the taxes the company paid on its surface land would have been about enough to buy one school bus for the county school system. The tax bill for its mineral holdings – the real wealth in the land—was $76, maybe enough to buy one tire for that school bus — a tire likely needed to replace one worn out from negotiating local roads badly damaged by heavy coal truck traffic. Despite being the state’s second leading coal producer, the county had no hospital, no sewage system, an inadequate water system, bad roads, and old school buildings in dire need of repair.

Given these conditions, it’s not surprising then that in the 1980s some coal county schools assigned homework to be done in class because there weren’t enough books (outdated books at that) for students to take home. Allowing time for homework in class, of course, reduces the time for teaching. Having the largest property owners virtually exempt from taxation created innumerable problems for school systems.  

The land study’s findings stirred the press across the region. The Louisville Courier-Journal called for legislation against “this economic colonialism,” The Nashville Tennessean called the situation “an outrage,” and the Charleston (WV) Gazette demanded: “End the exploitation.”

Nearly fifty years after the Widow Combs was carried from her property, the fight against coal stripmining continues, this time with opposition to mountaintop removal mining. Is it any wonder why regional activists and public thinkers puzzle over network news specials on Appalachia that repeat the statistics about poor schools, high dropout rates and poor health, yet never mention this more complete explanation about why these conditions exist?

Paying the price of others’ prosperity

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Appalachia has been sacrificed to fuel the nation’s prosperity and development.  The poverty, the bad health, the drug abuse and bad schools are the costs of coal that aren’t reflected in the price of electricity. Harry Caudill warned over 45 years ago that these costs are ultimately paid when he advised that the nation “cannot afford to leave large islands of its own population behind, stranded, and ignored… an anchor dragging behind the rest of America.”    

Unfortunately, stereotypes of mountain residents, often reinforced by television and film images, have hindered a productive response to these external costs. With stereotypes, utility trumps accuracy. University of Kentucky historian Ron Eller points out that stereotypes are very useful to those in power because they can be used to justify exploitation of those with little power.  And here lies the rub. While sacrifice areas are easier to live with if they are invisible, merely shining a light on broken, addicted, poverty stricken lives doesn’t illuminate the larger story of how these conditions became widespread and persistent. Showing these conditions isn’t the same thing as informing the decisions necessary to shape productive energy policy and rural economic development strategies.  

The growing economic divide between Appalachia’s coal counties and nearby cities reflects a growing economic disparity around the nation. Yet they aren’t the only rural places to be falling behind. The U. S. Government now recognizes the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota as the poorest community in the nation.  The South is the only region in the nation where low income students account for a majority of public school students.  The colonias of South Texas, home to 400,000 Hispanic Americans, have only recently obtained access to water lines and safe sewage disposal.

The richest 1 percent of Americans possesses more wealth than the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent. Appalachia is testimony that unless the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest is tempered by recognition of a common interest, our democracy may well collapse under the weight of intolerable inequities.  

With a popularly accessible public discourse on economic, political and environmental issues, perhaps the nation could begin to grapple with the question of its obligation to Central Appalachia and other rural areas in the nation like it, for there are many.   



land ownership in Appalachia

This is a good comprehensive piece on poverty and natural resource extraction in Appalachia. Sadly, the story continues to repeat itself generation after generation. In the early 1970's Highlander Center was the hub of some very good research work on these issues. Glad to see Chuck Shuford bringing the issue back front and center. 

Same old academic hype

First my background. I grew up in Norton VA in Wise County. I graduated John I Burton High School in 1977. I do oppose strip mining as my end of town was rocked by blasting and rocks thrown through roofs, etc. I'm no friend of big business or big coal. I track a lot of issues in this area for my website at

Now to my point; If coal is the reason for poverty in Appalachia, then explain why we have the same poverty in non-coal producing counties such as Scott, Washington, Smith, etc. and across East Tennessee and Bristol VA/TN. Seeing this from the usual left-wing victim versus greedy corporation mentality is simply politics.

When I was growing up in Norton miners (including some of my relatives) made big money even in non-union mines many of us could only dream of. What did they do? They squandered every dime.  Most never saved anything, education was held almost in contempt.

We had six kids in our family, grew up on welfare, didn't even have a toilet part of out lives but an outhouse, but none of us are on drugs, welfare, etc. Plenty of other people were the same way. The fact is we have far more success than failure in this region.

Drug use, laziness, dropping out of school, etc. are chosen behavior. I've seen too many times people selling food stamps for beer and smokes. Smoking three packs a day while refusing to use resperators that were available to miners is their fault. I know men that worked decades in the mines that wore the proper equipment which was available in most places have lungs as good as mine.

As for people leaving the coalfields, that is a rational economic decision. I live in Bristol because it's cheaper than Norton is and I can find a job. Rural America in general has been poor and is getting more so. Farming, logging, etc. are not high paying jobs. We do have plenty of educational opportunities in the region, but many simply chose not to use them. That's their problem.

What about the billions in government programs? In many coal producing counties in SW Virginia government and transfer payments are the economy.  They tend to produce nothing and when the money runs out so do the jobs. They do nothing to deal with this population that just doesn’t care.

Yes we have a lot of political corruption in these government programs just like we did with the mine bosses, but we also have a lot of self-inflicted failure. Now we are dealing with in my area low-wage jobs and exploding taxes and property prices due an influx of wealthy retirees buying up everything.

There’s a considerable income gap and we have lots of college graduates nobody will hire. But socialist style theory/economic hype has failed to solve any of this other than everyone work for the government. Look at the whole picture.

Wonderful article! And your

Wonderful article! And your point that we need to "study up" (e.g., to examine the social, political, and economic movesof those with financial interests in the Appalachian region) to understand poverty is critical. Unfortnately, there's plenty of grant money out there to study (and, by implication, "fix") the impoverished; but there's precious little to investigate the corporate and the wealthy.

Userper,As long as we have


As long as we have some sort of free will, people will make dumb decisions. But I wonder if the circumstances surrounding people contribute in important ways to the choices they think they have? It's hard to take advantage of higher eduaction if your local school can't afford up to date textbooks, for instance.

I see your point that folks aren't (and shouldn't ever think they are) "victims" of their circumstances, but neither do we have a great history of teaching people how to resist, for example, extractive out of state companies. On one hand, they bring jobs; on the other hand, they take profits out of state and are offered fantastic tax breaks, eroding local tax bases even more than they already are. So, aside from calling a scholarly analysis of Appalachian economics "academic hype," what do you suggest people to do ensure there's meaningful work that doesn't pillage the land or take advantage of the people?


what people can do

Hi Caitlin,

You brought up good points, but the facts are we replaced corporate corruption with government corruption. We elect the same people year after year for the same results year after year.

As for academic hype well it is. Most of them have never lived here for any length of time. I can visit Vermont, but I don't know Vermont. They continue to apply half-baked social theories from academics that have never grown up in such situations.

To quote, " It's hard to take advantage of higher education if your local school can't afford up to date textbooks, for instance." There are plenty of opportunities for education in this region and a number of people that volunteer to help. The problem is the local culture is often hostile to education and they want nothing to do with it.

They don't want their kids forced fed evolution or gay rights, etc. Then you fail to note most of the kids even in Wise County do succeed.

To quote, "On one hand, they bring jobs; on the other hand, they take profits out of state and are offered fantastic tax breaks, eroding local tax bases even more than they already are."

A mining job pays $30 an hour while an eco-tourism pays less than minimum wage.

One agency alone known as VCEDA uses a coal severance tax to fund alternative forms of economic development. (They spent $117 million) This along with many other pseudo-government agencies spend millions and have little to show for it. We get call centers where the tax payers in one case spent $100,000 per job. In another case taxpayers spent $200 million for Grundy Va and might get a Wal-Mart.

To quote, "what do you suggest people to do ensure there's meaningful work that doesn't pillage the land or take advantage of the people?"

"Pillage the land" is just more eco/leftist hype I'm not going to address. Replacing corrupt coal bosses with corrupt government agencies solves nothing. There is no economy outside of welfare/transfer payments and government hand-outs. They've spent millions to diversity the economy and it has failed.

Second in states like VA where county government operates under the Dillion Rule even if people manage to get control of local government there's little they can do. Richmond, etc. has stripped local officials of most of their power and leave them begging for state/federal dollars (after loading them down with mandates) which even when they come are mandated to be spent in a particular way. This is why federal highway funds end up as horse trails while schools are starved for funding.

It's also state laws that often exempt these companies from being taxed on miniral rights, etc.

If you get the funding so what? Half the kids drop out of school anyway. Do we start cracking down and really dealing with them directly or blame the coal bosses? Nobody makes anyone here drop out of school, but the schools have been dumbed down to keep them from leaving.

Here is my solution and you will not like it.

1. Clean up the schools. Raise academic standards to promote in particular math, science, and English. Promote knowledge based learning and not feelings based learning. Remove all social engineering, welfare programs, etc. Keep only say free/reduced lunch. (I by the way was on it as a kid.)

2. Crack down on truancy and unruly students. In one community they opened a separate school just for these kids to keep them from causing problems for other kids and ruining their school day. Deal with parents that won't control their kids. First sign of drug use in the home, etc. the kids are pulled out and the parents go to jail. Crack down on drug users.

3. Barr cell phones, etc. and other forms of distraction in schools. Enforce a rigorous dress code and if possible uniforms.

4. Institute a curfew for those under 18. Big Stone Gap Va did this a few years ago. This will cut down on crime and have them at home studying. If their home is so dysfunctional (a lot of them here are) they can't, then setup churches, public buildings etc. they can go to. Get them off the street. I've done this myself as a volunteer.

5. Curb after school jobs. Studies show has a negative impact learning. If they are home studying they do better in school. If they want cheap labor let them raise wages and hire adults. Most of this money goes to buy junk anyway such as cell phones, etc.

6. Crack down on unwed teenage mothers. It's against the law to have sex with kids under 18 unless married, etc. Prosecute the boy friend for statutory rape even if he is under 18. (I wouldn't write him up as for a sex crime record unless it was rape.) Cut the mother off from welfare, etc. She or her family can pay to raise the child or hopefully she will give the child up for adoption. Adoption is best. No more daycare in a public school.

7. Take the millions being wasted on pork-barrel economic development and use them for conditional grants for every kid to attend community college. Conditional meaning the classes are paid for as long as they do the work and pass. If they choose not to go, their problem.

8. Drop out of school, no drivers license, etc. until 21.

By dealing with dysfunctional families and getting these kids a real education now we have a force that can tackle the coal bosses and the corrupt government. These people will have real control of their lives and a better shot for a future outside government dependance or exploitation by the rich.

Examples of government waste:


Our poverty:









Interesting ideas

You make some interesting recommendations, conditional grants from community college attendence in particular. But I think we will just have to agree to disagree, because in addition to the cultural ailments you note, I remain convinced by data (from the Census, the Department of Labor, and rural scholars (especially those who live in rural places)) that large scale structural developments (like globalization, the farming crisis, extractive industry, etc.) have hurt rural communities.

That said, I agree entirely with you that education--one that teaches kids to *think*--is the key for making sure that people have control over their own lives.


Sorry, folks I’ve been out of pocket for awhile and missed this lively discussion.


Userper, I didn’t say anywhere that coal was the only problem (in fact I emphasized that point)  but is an essential part of the mix in the coal counties that the broadcast media overlooks.    I also pointed out problems with poverty in rural communities around the country. But the reality is in Central Appalachia, the highest levels of poverty and the most persistent poverty is consistently found in the coal counties.  Perhaps there are just more people in the coal counties who choose “drug use, laziness, dropping out of school” but I doubt it.  There are conditions and policies that can help ameliorate or exacerbate poverty and there is pretty strong evidence that the extractive industries exacerbate poverty. 


I can’t see that we’ve replaced corporate corruption as you suggest; it appears to be alive and well and frequently plays an essential role in government corruption.  While government no doubt wastes tax payer money – we may disagree on which are the actual offenses—I know that my family has recently been more impacted by the uninhibited pursuit of selfish interest in the financial sector than some of the questionable deals on your website.  I’m very frustrated with government but many of us believe that the public sector is the best place to guard against the excesses of the market place and to protect a common good. Yes, a few of us still believe in the common good just as the framers of the Constitution listed “promoting the general welfare” as one of the fundamental purposes of  that document. I fear that you may marginalize some good arguments you make when you resort to characterizing criticism of corporate practices as socialistic.


But the purpose of this story was not to debate good government vs. bad government.  It was to show that concentrated ownership and power is harmful and the reality in much of Central Appalachia is that the coal industry has concentrated land and mineral ownership and uses the power derived from that in ways that have been harmful to communities and individuals who don’t happen to have one of those few $30 an hour jobs.  I didn’t intend to suggest in this story what should be done under these circumstances – that’s not really the purpose although I have some ideas.  But I believe the history and facts need to be aired. 


I must admit that I’m curious about why you oppose strip-mining if you believe that talking about the destruction of the land and water is “eco-leftist hype” not worthy of being addressed?


So, as with Caitlin, I disagree with quite a bit of what you say but I thank you for sharing your opinions, and you made me stop and think.  Always a good thing. 

Solutions galor; who is listening? who will take action?

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Path from Poverty to Prosperity

By Jim Miller

There are many technological solutions to poverty beyond transfer payments.  Transfer payments

are like giving the starving native a fish rather than giving him tackle and bait so he can fish for

himself and his family.  Technology, alone, will not do the trick since it can be swiped by the

political and economic elite or killed-off by less-than-cost goods and services, direct competition or patent infringement litigation. 

Here's the way to prosperity:

1.  Form worker cooperatives for the purpose of starting for-profit businesses.  See what the Rainbow Grocery and the Cheese Board has done:

2.  The worker cooperatives can run any business.  Let's start with a food coop as did Rainbow Grocery.  All of the folks in the community can grow food in their back yards.  A commercial kitchen should be rented so surplus food can be canned or dehydrated.   Prepared food can be packaged and run through a Microwave Food Processing Tunnel, thus killing all the pathogens inside the package.  Cheese should be made and sold during the year. Grow nuts which can be stored for a year or more. Food can be frozen and generally will be OK for three months or more. Establish one or more aquaculture farms – fish, crawdads, fresh water prawns, frogs, brine shrimp (as dried food for tropical fish). Harvest game meat and have it legally prepared for commercial sale.

Look around your community and pick a business which has closed or is about to close.  Buy it out on contract with installment payments or wait until it is sold in bankruptcy.  Better yet, work with the owner of the failed/failing business so that the owner, the employees and some new folks form a worker cooperative and buy the business.

3.  Get a grant to do a feasibility study.  See the USDA 10.446 and 10.773 programs.  Check the USDA Rural Business Opportunity Grants.  Find out what business(es) will likely succeed in the community.

4.  Start a state chartered credit union. The community members contribute small deposits and the Credit Union makes micro-loans for very small business enterprises.  Approach the larger businesses and ask them to move their deposits to the CU.  Continue to build membership in the CU, which is owned and managed by its members/depositors. As deposits grow, larger loans can be made. If your community has an existing credit union, become active and elect the members of the board who will act in the best interests of the community as a whole.

5.  If one is not already established, start an economic development corporation for your community and make sure the board is independent of the "ruling families" and the "ruling companies".  Make sure the Executive Director is appointed based on competence, not on the basis of a well established business/social/political network.

6.  Start working on getting folks in office at the city, county and school board level who are free of conflicts of interest, who are very smart and are competent to make government work for the community as a whole.

7.  Make sure the education of the children and their health, have a high priority.  Courses should include "social engineering" as much as science.  Most high schools teach students to take jobs which do not exist in the community, so they move away.  Start a school-base apprentice program in all of the arts and sciences which have relevance to the community. For instance, if you community has a good supply of maple and other hardwoods, start a musical instrument factory.  Continue to grow the cooperative businesses and network the worker coops as did Mondragon Cooperative Corporation.  See:

  1. With the help of the credit union, create your own barter system, using “Moola” (or pick your name) as the form of digital currency to assist in trades. All transactions are accomplished using a debit card issued by the CU, but in the name of the community-based Moola organization. See:

  2. Start a community-wide business development and training organization as a 501.c.3 and apply for the money flowing from the U.S. Treasury for job training and job establishment.

  3. Use the community-wide business development organization to provide affordable housing with government 502 loans. This organization can get grants under 523 to start self-help affordable housing groups. Consider building straw bale housing as the best example of self-help, affordable housing. See:

  4. Develop concentrated solar energy as the community's main source of electrical energy. Send me an email if you are interested: [email protected]

  5. Develop energy from biomass using pyrolysis for production of syngas, biochar, hot and cold water, steam, electricity, pellet fuel, Agrichar as a soil amendment, and growing algae for food and fuel. Send me an email if you are interested: [email protected]


Jim Miller











Nice Job

Here Chuck Shuford takes a thoughtful look at a question many of us in the Appalachian coalfields have grappled with for years. Just what happened? I live in east Kentucky, the 5th U.S. Congressional District. If you compare our area to the most western congressional district in North Carolina, you see great similarity:  same mountain range, same mix of people, same churches, and the same cultural traditions.

The only conspicuous difference is that here in Kentucky we were blessed with vast mineral resources in the form of coal, oil, and gas that western Carolinians missed out on.  Yet now that west North Carolina congressional district is by most standards relatively prosperous. (Just check out the real estate prices on line.) And this congressional district in Kentucky is ranked at the very bottom of the list in well being, health, wealth, and individual happiness.

How does the very richest region in natural resources become the absolute poorest in the nation? It does not happen by accident.  I try not to be skeptical. But I think the lesson of the coalfields is that when government and industry work together in true partnership, there is just nothing they can’t accomplish.


NAIS and Poverty

Just wait till NAIS is made mandatory. NAIS regulations require computers, microchips and filing reports, all of which will cost money, something these people have very little of  and will really put a burden on them.

NAIS (National animal Identification System)   is a business plan designed to benefit corporate ag, but the rest of us are dragged in to work and fund the program, while corporate ag gets a free ride.  Under NAIS, you register your premises with the government, even if you own even one animal, such as a horse, llama, goat, chicken, cattle, pet pot belly pig, parakeet, etc.  (This step clouds title to private property.) All  critters must be microchipped and all births, deaths and movements reported into a database. This costs time and money.  (Factory farms do NOT have to do this, they get one lot number per group of animals. Any animal in that group could be diseased and who would know.) But if animal disease is suspected in an area, the USDA can depopuolate whole regions of animals.