I just returned from a visit with my mother in my (and her) home city, Huntington, West Virginia. We drove by way of Portsmouth, Ohio. Both cities are in “flyover country” and both have suffered from the heavy (and likely irreversible) loss of manufacturing jobs. To give you an idea of the losses, Huntington has dwindled from about 90,000 residents in 1960 to about 45,000 today. Even accounting for suburban flight, that is a big loss–and the suburbs haven’t grown all that much. Portsmouth, which has virtually no suburban flight, has declined from 70,000 to less than 20,000. I can name the big losses in Huntington: INCO, CSX (C&O) Railway headquarters and shops, H. H. Porter Steel, Houdaille Industries, Owens-Illinois Glass, and others. Portsmouth lost its huge employer, Detroit Steel, back in the early 1980s.
But other cities have lost big industry and survived and flourished. What is different here, and in other parts of this region, the area essentially referred to in Hillbilly Elegy, “flyover country”? Before I make my own observations as to causes, let me tell you what I saw in Huntington.
I saw too many vacant and rundown houses. I saw many shuttered businesses. I saw a less than well-maintained infrastructure. I heard from my mother and read in newspapers about the increasing drug crisis in the city. And on the general economic front, when the biggest economic announcement is either an expansion of Marshall University (a public university), particularly the sports facilities, or of a hospital/health care complex (also public) or, yes, the opening of a new restaurant, you know things are not right economically. Where is the entrepreneurship, the small businesses other than eateries, cosmetic operations, tanning parlors, and antique shops? I see a sinking economy even as government officials speak glowingly of progress. And I know there is increasing crime and drug use. I also saw people walking along the streets with an attitude and bearing of hopelessness. They just looked as if they had lost their dignity and will to work. More even than economics, though somewhat related, this is the most telling symptom of a deeper mailaise. So what has happened to my city that once was a thriving commercial and industrial center?
I will point to several factors in its demise, as examples of what other cities have done wrong also.
First, the taxes are too high and of the wrong kind, both at the local and state levels. Huntington and West Virginia have relied heavily on a Business and Occupation tax, whereby a merchant or industry pays a percentage of gross receipts, even if the company loses money. That is a killer. Besides the B&O tax, the state income tax also hinders business.
Second the regulatory regime in West Virginia and Huntington is stifling to both business and to simple life of individual freedom. Regulation in a Democratic state (moving slowly Republican) has increased since the 1950s. Why would an entrepreneur want to take a risk in a state and city that act as if they really don’t want him? And many regulations bear no real relationship to public safety.
Third, there are the unions, less influential than they had been, but now more entrenched in government. The unions were partly responsible for killing industry (partly), and now public unions are partly responsible for driving up public wages and waste in contracting and services. This means a higher tax burden for everyone and a lower level of service. That does not sound like a recipe for prosperity.
Speaking of unions, the teachers’ union in West Virginia has created a long-standing hostility to competition of any kind, including private schools and home-schooling. It is getting better, but way too slowly. So we get less actual education in quality and in quantity, and more useless programs and the adoption of ineffective fads. And we get more administrators. Greater cost to all in taxes and less service. I could watch from afar the influence of the teachers’ union in this past legislative session in which at least one bill was introduced dealing with Common Core and home schools/private schools. The anti-innovation lobbying crowd was out in full force.
But at this point I want to shift a bit to another kind of factor, one that cannot be addressed by government except to stand aside and encourage. West Virginia, like many largely rural states, has for some time consisted of a population that has lived off the “capital” of its “cultural Christianity.” In the past, and with abundant jobs and a thriving economy, this thin veneer of Christian faith did stand most people in good stead. They got a job, they got married, they stayed married and they had children after they were married–the formula to a successful if not perfect, life, the formula that statistically, keeps people out of jail, off the poverty roles and living a life that satisfies, if only externally. They were essentially ethical. They kept promises, avoided violence, participated in community life, and worked hard. And they went to church on Sunday, as well as other times of the week, where they received a sort of watered-down version of the Christian, mainly Protestant, faith that stressed an externally ethical life. I hasten to add that this “religion” also included a healthy dose of “Americanism.” That is, they were encouraged and shown how to be patriotic and nationalistic and these became entangled to a great degree in the essence of their Christian faith. Christianity was nearly if not precisely equivalent to national patriotism. Please don’t misunderstand me on this; on Independence Day we have much to be thankful for in being born and living in the United States. Though our nation isn’t perfect is is exceptional in several crucial ways. But our faith is not the same thing as our patriotism.
Somewhere in our history in America and in West Virginia, the next generation (whichever one that was) began to drift from even this external and rudimentary kind of religion. Perhaps it was the education they received, perhaps the more liberal ministers (I experienced that twice in my early life), perhaps it was the exhaustion of an overly pietistic but weak doctrinal church tradition, perhaps it was just the inundation of the “world out there” into the very traditional society. It is very difficult to point to a single causal factor. Nevertheless, we are now more hedonistic and also more cynical about religion than we were. And our ethical lives have suffered, along with, most importantly, our relation with the God of the Bible. We became more dependent on the government for our goods in life–and our good. It was an easy substitute for a lost faith.
At the risk of overstating my case, I am convinced that the loss of an ethical foundation, even if it was not the “real thing” all the time, has more than anything else led to the current societal disintegration that I see in my own hometown. It won’t get much better until we understand the importance of a life of virtue and that life of virtue won’t be taught and modeled until we begin to realize that it isn’t just jobs that will change people’s habits for the better–and their lives. We must somehow break the stranglehold held by the elite media, entertainment and others on culture and go back to a day when most at least agreed on what one should and should not do in life–and then did it, imperfectly, but in reality. I believe our churches need to take the lead, but I am not yet sure how. And I suppose the more cynical may see my encouragement here as pollyanish and impossible. Maybe they are right. Perhaps our culture here and in general is beyond help. I do know that God is not beyond helping if He so chooses to bring a genuine revival. And I would first settle for a cultural ethics, even if it is a bit weak on real faith. But I do not want to stop there. What we really need is, as I put it, “the real thing.”
In the meantime, I am sad for my hometown. It is not the place I remember, and, even though I understand that no one can go back to the way things as they were when younger, it is a great disappointment to see it so downtrodden.