The Economic Underdevelopment of Central Appalachia

Presented at the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) Virtual Annual Convention

Panel Discussion – Building a Worker Cooperative Ecosystem in Central Appalachia

by J. Todd Nesbitt, Ph.D., Professor of Geography, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania


  • I would first like to offer a big thanks to all of the ASA folks involved in organizing this virtual conference – a massive task.
  • I would also like to thank my fellow panelists, Michael Peck and Hannah Scott, for agreeing to serve on the panel with me and share their tremendous expertise with us on cooperatives and economic democracy.  I have learned a lot from them and look forward to continuing our work together in the future.
  • My role here is to outline the broader economic context of economic underdevelopment in Central Appalachia.  After that, Michael and Hannah will provide us with information about worker cooperatives, and how we are working to build a worker cooperative ecosystem within Central Appalachia.

The Underdevelopment of Central Appalachia

  • The current form of capitalism has failed the majority of Central Appalachians.
  • Allow me to use my home state of West Virginia to demonstrate this point.
  • More than half of West Virginia’s children are low income or poor.
  • West Virginia ranks 49th in median household income ($41,059), with 18% of its population living in poverty.
  • The state reports the lowest bachelor’s degree attainment in the country at 19.6%.
  • The average life expectancy for a man in McDowell County, West Virginia is 67 years – this is equivalent to the African countries of Burundi and Sudan.
  • In West Virginia, nearly 15% of the population struggles with food insecurity and hunger.
  • West Virginia ranks 50th in the number of job opportunities that provide a living wage.
  • Clearly, the current economic model within West Virginia is broken.
  • As author Chris Hedges suggests in his book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt — West Virginia has become a sacrifice zone of human and environmental devastation.

The Failures of Trickle-Down Modernist Development

  • Appalachian scholars have, for decades, addressed the exploitation and underdevelopment of Appalachia, with West Virginia often being the epicenter of discussion.
  • The region’s poverty has been attributed to problems associated with environmental determinism, a degenerate culture, and predatory colonial capitalism.
  • While these models have made for interesting academic discourse and debate, they have done little to alleviate the plight of the impoverished.
  • Today, there is general agreement among Appalachian scholars that the top-down, modernist based economic development models applied to the region have largely failed.
  • More of us are asking questions like the following — Why should we continue to embrace a top-down regional economic development model that has maintained West Virginia as the poorest state in the U.S. for over a century?  Are there alternative models available to help Appalachia transition from decades of economic underdevelopment to a future of sustainable prosperity.
  • More recently, Appalachian scholars have broadened the development discussion to include issues of human well-being, and environmental, community, and economic sustainability.
  • The Journal of Appalachian Studies has published multiple volumes of scholarly work promoting sustainable economic development in Appalachia in the hopes of redefining and democratizing development.
  • Through this work, we are beginning to ask the following critical questions — How do we change the narrative surrounding economic development policy within Appalachia?  How do we build a regional economy grounded in broad-based capitalism?  That is, a form of capitalism that is inclusive and builds regional wealth within Appalachia for the majority of its people. 
  • The way we do this, I believe, is through the democratization of the Appalachian economy.  We need to build an economy that is by the people, and for the people of Central Appalachia.
  • Americans, and especially Appalachians, champion freedom and democracy.  So – why should we be deprived of economic democracy? Why can’t we have an economic model in Central Appalachia that is inclusive, democratic, and builds broad-based community wealth?
  • Appalachians, and especially West Virginians, are starved for a new form of economic development.  One that builds and maintains attachment to place and community through the creation of living wage jobs that champion human dignity in the workplace.
  • I contend that cooperatives, and specifically worker owned cooperatives, give us the best chance of building economic democracy, and long-term sustainability in Central Appalachia
  • Let’s consider the following ten cooperative principles that serve as the foundation for worker cooperatives and economic democracy.
  • It’s my argument that we should use these principles as the foundation for a new and reformed regional economic development strategy within Central Appalachia
  • Imagine, for a moment, a corporation or workplace based on the following ten principles.
  • For that matter, imagine the entire Central Appalachian regional economy based on the following ten principles.

1. Open Admission. The cooperative is nondiscriminatory. All are invited to join the co-ops.

2. Democratic Organization. One person, one vote. This ensures participatory democracy between workers and management.

3. Sovereignty of Labor. Capital is subordinate to labor. People who contribute their labor will share in the governance and in the distribution of the wealth that the organization’s members create together.

4. Capital as Instrument. Capital is a tool used by members to achieve the goals they set for themselves.

5. Participation in Management. This fosters the progressive development of self-management: the flattening of hierarchy, the creation of multiple, flexible structures for organizing worker involvement in decision making and the training of staff at different levels in order to help make participation widespread and effective.

6. Wage Solidarity. This determines the wage differential between the lowest and highest paid—roughly 1:9 at the level of the individual cooperative.

7. Inter-Cooperation. This encourages cooperation between co-ops. Forming common sectoral strategies and transferring worker members between co-ops when necessary.  We refer to this as a Worker Cooperative Ecosystem.

8. Social Transformation. Co-ops should be committed to the transformation of values within the wider community.

9. Universal Solidarity. Co-ops are to practice solidarity with labor on a global scale.

10. Education. Education should be a core value of the co-op. Knowledge is seen as key to innovation and the democratization of power within the co-op and broader regional community.

  • Believe it or not, this type of regional economy exists.  It exists in places like Mondragon, Spain and Preston, England.  And it’s currently being built in the U.S. in places like Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati.
  • These democratic forms of regional economic development are happening quite successfully around the world and within the United States – through interconnected worker owned cooperatives.  That is – through regional worker cooperative ecosystems.
  • Our task now is to build a worker cooperative ecosystem within Appalachia.
  • This will not happen overnight – we are talking about broad, structural economic change that may take a generation to fully implement. 
  • So, how do we do it?  Or – perhaps I should say how are we doing it?  
  • I’ll now pass the discussion on the Michael and Hannah to give us the details about how we are planting seeds to cultivate a worker cooperative ecosystem in Central Appalachia.


See Michael Peck’s presentation from this panel.

See Hannah Scott’s presentation from this panel.