Dan McGinn

Why Saving West Virginia Matters

(Photo Credit: John Giles/PA via AP)

In the poorest parts of America, the presidential campaign is largely irrelevant. The candidates will never admit this, but it's true. It's not because the candidates don't have carefully considered economic plans to help the most depressed parts of the country. Many of them care passionately about the disadvantaged and they've given these issues a lot of thought.

The problem is that government is essentially incapable of building a sound economic and social foundation in areas where the very fabric of society has been torn. No area illustrates this challenge better than southern West Virginia.

Since John Kennedy discovered the meaning of domestic poverty during his 1960 primary campaign in West Virginia, the state has been the beneficiary of billions of dollars of federal support. All of it was well-intended; a lot of it was well-spent; and some good was done. But the tough truth is this: in many respects, West Virginia is worse off today than it was 60 years ago, particularly in the southern coal belt.

The lesson from this isn't that the federal tap should be turned off. Without adequate government support, there can be no economic recovery.

The lesson is that it's time to say good bye to both the Great Society and the Reagan Revolution. A debate about more or less government spending misses the point. Expanding or contracting federal largesse will matter little if we don't take a new approach to the problem of deeply embedded poverty.

For most of us, the plight of southern West Virginia is not even an afterthought. Unless someone has a personal connection to the state --as I do, having grown up there – it seems like an unfortunate and unimportant area populated by a few backward people who mine coal - which no one likes anymore.

In fact, regions that have not benefited from the knowledge economy matter greatly. We can ignore them. But they are part of us. And how we engage with them says a lot about who we are.
This country wouldn't be what it is today without the contributions of people in places like Mingo County, whose coal fueled our nation in the pre- and post-war decades. More important, our children and grandchildren won't have the nation we want for them if we can't find a way to build a brighter future for those in counties across America who have been left behind in the new economy.

The answer is to move past a government-led war on poverty and to build a coalition combining the resources of government with those of our most successful and forward-thinking corporations, philanthropies, and academic institutions.

We don't need a New Frontier or a New Deal. What we need is a New Partnership. Harvard, Stanford and MIT have to be in this fight. Breaking the back of poverty is one of this generation's greatest challenges. We need our best minds on the job.

Silicon Valley should step up as well. In an age when barriers and borders are disappearing, who better to help find a new economic model for people living in Appalachia? Inventing the next app for an iPhone is important. But helping save a generation of people who are being left behind is priceless.

It's also time for the Fortune 100 to rethink their charitable and community engagements. Many corporations have a long record of giving to the communities they serve. What's needed is a fresh perspective on where to deploy their assets.

This is the golden age of philanthropy. In 2014, it is estimated that more than $400 billion was donated to charitable institutions in the U.S. There are efforts to make non-profits more accountable and efficient.

We have the tools to rethink and refocus this fight. It still requires government support, but it acknowledges the limits of federal funding. A true coalition would bring together the best of our society, ensuring greater creativity and better accountability.

West Virginia and other forgotten states and regions may seem easy to ignore. We do so at our peril. We will never be the society we hope and expect to be unless we make sure everyone has a fair chance to fulfill their potential - and their dreams. Tom Brokaw rightfully labeled the WW II generation as "The Greatest Generation." If this new generation confronts poverty with the same passion and courage with which our grandparents fought tyranny, it will be known as the generation that gave America its greatest gift - hope.