Within the first few sentences describing West Virginia in encyclopedic profiles, the state is often identified as unique for its designation as the only state entirely in Appalachia. Yet, most West Virginians don't view themselves as part of Appalachia.
When polled, only 29 percent of mountaineers identified themselves with Appalachia. 57 percent said they lived in the northeast, mid-Atlantic or the south.
When dealing with identity, shouldn't the individuals in question construct it? If most West Virginians don't associate with the stigmatizing label of Appalachia-the label that immediate stirs up images of hillbillies and rednecks-then how did this label get officially attached to our entire state? The person responsible for this is none other than President John F. Kennedy.
The hillbilly is the product of convergent paths traced back to the 18th century: poor whites of the southern backcountry; the rural rube; and inhabitants of southern mountains. But it was JFK who proposed the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which defined West Virginia as entirely in Appalachia. The ARC crystallized Appalachia's stereotypes by writing them into law.
Has this label been worth it? Has the ARC improved West Virginia? The answer is a resounding "no." The ARC has delivered no significant grants to the state. Nearly all major federal funding was the result of Sen. Robert Byrd's machinations. Meanwhile, JFK's ghost has continued to curse us with the creation of his ARC.
The ARC label has caused Americans to visit West Virginia not for outdoor leisure, but for missionary work. Religious groups have been drawn to West Virginia and treat the state in the same manner as underdeveloped countries. These groups also insult us with proselytizing. Looking around at the overwhelming number of churches; there's no need for outside groups to tend to us like indigenous people at first contact.
These missionaries justify their continual existence by feeding a man for a day, rather than teaching him how to fish for a lifetime-and plenty of mountaineers already know how to literally fish. These groups are not needed in West Virginia. We can take care of our own. And, once we start to remove counties from the ARC, it will help us to recruit tourists-not missionaries.
It's time to redraw the boundaries of the ARC. We have plenty of counties that could continue using federal assistance, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that the following areas need equal attention: the northern and eastern panhandles; the tri-cities region of Morgantown, Fairmont and Clarksburg; and the Charleston-Huntington corridor.
We all know that the end of coal and gas will one day come. West Virginia's only chance to survive is showcasing its wild and wonderful opportunities of outdoor leisure. West Virginia must become the foremost outdoor destination for the east coast. We can't do this if a federal government program justifies its existence by perpetuating negative images of our state.
Some may not view "Appalachia" as derogatory, but most in the country do and they are the tourists we wish to attract. Removing certain counties from the ARC is the first step toward reform. If the ARC wishes to continue assisting other areas, they should begin by renaming their organization-perhaps to something neutral such as the Eastern Mountain Rural Commission.