This Viewpoint was originally published in CT Mirror on October 17, 2019.
Lately, it seems that every other week, Connecticut’s news audience is treated to a new essay by a disaffected resident planning on quitting the Nutmeg State for good. This genre seems particularly robust among writers who are white, well-off, and somewhere in the neighborhood of retirement age.
The taxes are too high. The unions are too powerful. The cities have far too much political clout, because of the deeply unfair circumstance that lots of people live in them. This is no longer a state where a retired couple can realize the humble American dream of owning three homes, seven cars, a modest yacht, and an underachieving racehorse. How can anyone want to remain in this tax-choked hell on earth, where grass grows in the street and the living envy the dead?
Let me offer a different perspective.
Twice, work took me away from home in Connecticut, once to Massachusetts, and then to West Virginia and North Carolina. Massachusetts you’re already familiar with; it’s like Connecticut but larger, and no one is willing to operate a motor vehicle in a safe manner. But the other two states yield more useful insights.
West Virginia has deep, structural, generations-old problems that make Connecticut’s look like luxury disaffections. West Virginia is desperately poor, and has been ever since it was founded. It has been plundered and exploited by industries that funneled wealth out of the state, leaving environmental devastation behind. In measures ranging from obesity to life expectancy to educational attainment, West Virginia ranks in the bottom five of the country (a grim joke in the state is “Thank God for Mississippi,” which usually rates even worse), while Connecticut ranks in the top five.
When it comes to bad government, West Virginia’s rococo roster of cutthroats and scoundrels makes our own collection of parking meter hustlers look like a Cub Scout troop. Any public figure who earnestly tried to better the state tended to get run out of town, like Gov. William Marland, who stood up to the coal bosses; or shot dead in the street, like Mingo County Sheriff Sid Hatfield, who also stood up to the coal bosses (standing up to the coal bosses, then as now, is not advisable for those seeking a comfortable retirement).
But what I didn’t encounter in West Virginia was a surfeit of residents complaining about West Virginia. On the contrary; I have never lived in a place where people took more pride in their shared home. And not an abstract, vague pride, either: West Virginians can and will tell you specifically what they love about their state, from its breathtakingly gorgeous landscapes to the flinty defiance of its political history. Every West Virginian who has made good, from Jennifer Garner to Homer Hickam, is celebrated to an almost cultish degree. Every Saturday in the fall, the entire state is decked out in the blue and gold of West Virginia University, except for the region around Huntington, which proudly sports the green and white of Marshall University.
North Carolina, by contrast, has more to brag about, particularly in the four parts of the state where Northerners are willing to live: the Research Triangle, the touristy parts of the coast, Charlotte, and Asheville. Venture outside these areas, though, and you’ll quickly encounter a different side of the Old North State.
North Carolina has the 15th highest poverty rate in the country, with one in five children living below the federal poverty line – and this 2018 figure represents an improvement over recent years. The typical North Carolina household makes as much money in 2019 as it did in 2007. The legacy of Jim Crow racism remains a toxic problem in the present, as the state’s political orientation has swung from moderately conservative to hard right over the last decade (thanks in part to the mass migration of tax-hating Northerners to this Dixie wonderland).
But even in the desperately poor precincts of the Great Smoky Mountains, or in the depressed counties in the northeastern corner of the state, you’ll find unvarnished expressions of pride and gratitude at being alive in North Carolina. The powder blue of the University of North Carolina and the red-and-white of N.C. State are omnipresent, as are celebrations of the distinct traditions and folkways of this state.
I don’t mean to minimize the very real challenges facing Connecticut, or to suggest that mindless cheerleading is a solution to structural problems. But there are plenty of people in West Virginia and North Carolina who are clear-eyed about the troubles their states face who nonetheless would never dream of living anywhere else.
I was privileged to know many of them. Their anguish over mountaintop removal mining or child poverty was rooted in a profound and enduring love of the places where they were born and raised. “Solving” those problems by moving to another state never occurs to these people: nowhere else in the world do bars close every night with a communal singalong of “Take Me Home, Country Roads;” no other place has barbecue that tastes like Lexington barbecue. “Home” is non-negotiable for the people who love it.
There are problems in Connecticut, but our state has strengths and advantages that other places would do anything to possess. The first step toward realizing our potential consists simply in grasping what people in West Virginia and North Carolina already know: we’re all in this together.
Tom Breen lives in Manchester.