The first municipal parking garage in America, Ronald Bailey tells us in an engrossing piece in the new issue of Reason, was built in the town of Welch in McDowell County, West Virginia, in 1941. In those days, Welch was known as the “Little New York” of the region, a vibrant economic hub in the leading coal-producing county in the nation. On weekends, the streets would be packed with cars, as coal miners and their families flocked to the town for fun.
But those days have long passed. In 1950, 6,600 called Welch home; today, fewer than 2,000 do. Once a booming county, McDowell now routinely ranks near the bottom in West Virginia in terms of employment and health. It is, in other words, the kind of place that has dominated the national conversation amid Donald Trump’s ascent.
Bailey’s family came from McDowell, but they never stayed. His piece, titled “Stuck,” wonders about the people who did. Like many areas in the heart of the country, the place has seen hard times. “Out of a population of nearly 100,000 in 1950, 15,812 worked as miners,” Bailey writes. “By 1960 that number was just 7,118. Today there are only about 1,000 employees working for coal companies in the county, out of a population of less than 20,000.”
That economic collapse has brought other calamities. At 64, the life expectancy for males in McDowell is the lowest in the country. It has the highest suicide rate in the state, a liver disease rate twice as high as the national rate, and a murder rate three times the national average.
All this poses a conundrum for Bailey: “So why don’t people just leave?” This being an article in Reason, we know the answer: government. Bailey reports that “nearly 47 percent of all personal income in the county is from Social Security, disability insurance, food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), and other federal programs.” He quotes a county official who explains that, “So many folks in McDowell have an entitlement mentality.” These government benefits have turned the county into a “poverty trap” that stifles dynamism and discourages mobility. In other words, as Bailey puts it, “the government is paying people to be poor.”
But that pat answer doesn’t hold up. For one thing, as Bailey himself acknowledges, people left McDowell. His opening passages paint a picture of a depopulated town; indeed, the county population has shrunk by a whopping 80 percent from 1950 to today. Despite all those government benefits allegedly bribing them to stick around, the people of McDowell took off anyway. If welfare creates a poverty trap from which people can’t escape, it’s not a very good one.
What about the ones who did stay and receive welfare? Perhaps they got snared in the trap? Bailey quotes R Street Institute’s Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders, who wrote in National Affairs in 2014, “For an individual or family faced with the stressful prospect of uprooting a household and leaving behind established community support systems, even a temporary loss of welfare benefits can be daunting”—hence they stick around. But for such a family, isn’t the bigger obstacle the lack of resources for a move to begin with? Moving is expensive. (Just to rent a small U-Haul truck for five days, say to drive from West Virginia to North Dakota, would set a family back almost $1,000, not counting gas.) Are families in economically depressed McDowell just sitting on savings they can use for that purpose? That’s highly doubtful.
To his credit, Bailey doesn’t advocate cutting off welfare and letting people go cold turkey. He suggests some intriguing policy ideas that have made the rounds in conservative (and even progressive) wonk circles, including subsidies to help people move to areas with better job prospects (something Michael Strain has advocated) and expanding the earned income tax credit. Indeed, those prescriptions suggest an awareness that a precondition for moving is money, and that the people stuck in depressed towns around the country don’t have much of it.
But it is the rote case against government that animates Bailey’s argument. He ends the piece on a familiar anti-welfare note, quoting from a local, “If you get public assistance to supply your needs without any effort from you, you’ve got no incentive to better yourself or your situation.” Bailey’s account of a hollowed-out town has much to recommend it, but its diagnosis is sung straight from the Reaganite hymnal. By the end of it, it’s clear that it’s not just the people of McDowell County who are stuck.