What Happens When You Don’t Own the Land

[imgbelt img=Corn_Jack065.jpg]There have been plenty of theories about the causes of poverty in
Appalachia. But too little time has been spent discussing the region’s
wealth and who owns it.


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.”   

Losing the minerals

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.   [imgcontainer left] [img:widow.jpg] [source]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.