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Book Review: ‘The Climb from Salt Lick’ by Nancy L. Abrams



From the time of Babylon to the present, most of what we learn as history chronicles the migrations of people from farms and small towns toward cities. Cities nurture commerce and art, mingle cultures and languages, and drive the creation of empires. Yet, there’s always a bit of human backwash to this flow — people who trek out of the cities to the frontier or the hinterlands. Some come seeking wealth or an escape from crowds. Others feel called to improve the lot of their rural brethren through education, technology, or religion.

Phil leads his flock. Photo by Nancy L. Abrams.

Some simply follow a loved one out of town and find themselves in a new place. In the late 1970s, I was a couple months gone from a comfortable Chicago apartment, holed up in a wood-heated cabin on top of Laurel Mountain in Preston County, West Virginia, with my future wife. The snow piled up waist-high, temperatures dipped far below zero, and electric service was spotty. I needed a job.

One of the first people I met in my new adopted home was journalist and photographer Nancy Abrams, author of The Climb from Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia, released this spring by West Virginia University’s Vandalia Press. She and a handful of people were running The Preston County News, a prize-winning weekly newspaper in Terra Alta, West Virginia, arguably the only place in the state colder and snowier than the mountaintop I inhabited. They needed a stringer for a few stories, and I joined what she calls her “motley crew” for a month or two until I found steadier work. (We’ve been friends and sometime co-workers since then. I won’t be attempting any journalistic objectivity in this review, as I make a cameo appearance on page 150.)

Sisters pose for a portrait outside of Rowlesburg, West Virginia. Photo by Nancy L. Abrams.

Abrams’ journey from the suburbs of the Midwest to the high plateau where West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania meet is the framework for her story. At the suggestion of a professor and mentor She brought her talents for writing and black-and-white portraiture to Terra Alta in 1974 during her last year of photojournalism training at the University of Missouri.

Abrams fell in love with the mountains, the people and the pace of life in West Virginia. She returned to college, but was less interested than her peers in the competitive world of big-time photography.  Turning aside other, more lofty publications, she accepted an offer to the be managing editor of Terra Alta paper. At $125 a week, she writes, “I had the highest title and lowest salary of my graduating class.”

Her memoir chronicles a decade of finding, writing, photographing and telling West Virginia stories. The audience was almost exclusively local — the readers of rural weeklies are mostly the friends, relatives and co-workers of the people whose stories are being told. It’s a personal relationship, and the subject of this week’s story is likely to show up at the newspaper office next week or be standing in line in front of you at the supermarket tomorrow.

The cover of ‘The Climb from Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia.’

Abrams gives us a snapshot of the life of an admitted outsider in a turbulent time in Preston County. Strip mining was controversial, and one of her newspaper photos illustrated a particularly notorious scar on the landscape that led to enforcement action. Local politics were wracked by a dispute over school consolidation that still echoes today. (Voters in the county, many of whom felt betrayed by the closure of its small town high schools, still regularly reject school bond proposals.)  

The Climb from Salt Lick is more about Nancy than it is about journalism. She tells her own story without holding much back: the good luck she had in finding kindred spirits, falling in love, marrying and having children; the disappointment she faced when love couldn’t overcome the realization of her mate’s shortcomings, as well as her own; the thrill of being part of a tight group of newspaper people with a mission and a burning energy to make a difference in their readers’ lives; the hollow feeling when that team starts to fall apart and new leaders have different ambitions.

Three miners at Reliable Coal Company pose for the cover of “Coal ’79.” Photo by Nancy L. Abrams.

Her photographs — all black-and-white, the only photos that were useful for small daily papers in that era — are each little treasures: portraits, landscapes, tight-jawed crowds at school board meetings. The book’s only shortcoming is that the photos are printed at such a small scale that the resolution is not much better that they would have had in a 1980 newspaper.

There are lessons here for a new generation struggling to re-invent local journalism in West Virginia and elsewhere. One is that there’s no substitute for just being present. Abram’s best journalistic victories resulted from her full immersion into Preston County — she knew where the high water would cause the most havoc in the great flood of 1985 and positioned herself to take a photo at the moment things fell apart. But, more than that, she learned by hard experience the importance of taking care of yourself and your loved ones, even in the middle of the biggest stories.

The Rutherfords pose for a picture with their new supply of coal. Photo by Nancy L. Abrams.

The Climb from Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia is available from the WVU Press (see in paperback and electronic editions, or at your local or online bookstore.

For your Appalachian bookshelf, check out previous book reviews:
14 Books that Meant the Most to Me in 2017
Review: New Book on Appalachia takes J.D. Vance Behind the Woodshed
Book Review: The Ordeal of Appalachia

Bill Case (@billcasewv) has worked as a communicator for West Virginia University since 1985, mostly in support of the Health Sciences Center and WVU Medicine. He served as communications director for Gov. Bob Wise in 2001-2. From 1977-85, he worked for a series of West Virginia weekly and daily newspapers, including the Charleston Gazette. Case is a graduate of Macalester College and holds a master’s degree in journalism from WVU.






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Ohio Valley Outlook: Expect a Slower Regional Economy in 2020



Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource
Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource

This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.

“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.

‘One tweet away’

A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.

Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.

“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”

He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.

“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”

Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.

“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.

Still Recovering

In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.

West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.

“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.

Pipeline stacked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.

“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”

Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.

“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.

Deficits Despite Growth 

The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.

“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.

Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.

A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.

“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”

As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.

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Fact-check: Is Jim Justice the First West Virginia Governor to Fight For Teacher Pay Raises?



Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.

The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.

Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.

So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017

In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.

In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 2005-2010

As governor, Manchin — now a U.S. Senator — periodically sparred with teachers’ unions over the size of his salary increase proposals. But both Manchin’s Senate office and West Virginia teachers’ unions agree that he proposed a teacher salary increase and signed it into law.

During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.

The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.

Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005

In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001

In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.

Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997

Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.

Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.

Like Wise, Caperton headed an education group — the College Board — after serving as governor.

Our ruling 

Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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