Young people are leaving Appalachia, and everyone’s talking about it. Just last month, West Virginia announced its “Ascend WV” program to lure young professionals to the state, and the program isn’t the only one. Meanwhile, supporters and critics of the state’s recent legislative session often framed their proposals in terms of attracting and keeping young people in the state.
In West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia, declining population numbers raise fears of fewer tax dollars, less economic activity, and a further decline in the region’s quality of life. Trying to reverse these trends is a worthy endeavor. However, in only thinking of departing young people as wayward youth who need to be lured back or replaced, policymakers may be ignoring one of the region’s most valuable assets: the Appalachian diaspora.
For over a hundred years, young people have left Appalachia by the millions to make a better life elsewhere, often becoming leading figures in their chosen fields. However, as evidenced by the very existence of a term like expatalachian, they don’t forget where they come from. In consciously including these expatalachians in plans for economic development, policymakers may be surprised at the diverse skills, resources, and networks they can draw on to help reinvigorate the region.
What is the Appalachian diaspora?
Simply put, a diaspora is a scattered community of people who have left their original home. Often, the term is used to refer to people living outside their country of birth, with India, Mexico, and China each having diasporas of over 10 million citizens living around the world. In a wider sense, a diaspora can also refer to these migrants’ descendants, with Ireland’s diaspora comprising some 70 million people of Irish descent across the globe.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, the history of a distinctly Appalachian diaspora extends back over a century. Attracted by the promise of a better life elsewhere, over 7 million Appalachians left the region between 1940 and 1970 for Midwest and East Coast cities, and more have flocked to the Sunbelt and the West Coast in recent decades. Although the exact number of these migrants and their descendants is difficult to count, many of them have gone on to become some of Appalachia’s most notable personalities, with people like Jennifer Garner, Chuck Yeager, and Katherine Johnson making international names for themselves.
However, despite their success outside the region, the potential for expatalachians to develop Appalachia has been seldom discussed. As recent research on the role of diasporas in development has shown, this may be a lost opportunity.
What can the Appalachian diaspora do for regional development?
Over the past decade, policymakers and scholars have become more interested in the role of diaspora communities in promoting economic development back home. Most research on this topic has focused on countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many of which have long-standing practices of young people migrating overseas for lack of opportunities at home.
While Appalachian migrants do not face many of the same challenges as migrants from the Global South—like visa restrictions or systematically exploitative working conditions—lessons learned studying other communities can help policymakers think about how the Appalachian diaspora can help economic development.
Historically, the most prominent role diasporas have played in economic development has been as a source of remittances, or money a migrant working in a foreign country sends back home to their family. According to the World Bank, migrants sent over $554 billion to low- and medium-income countries in 2019, with several countries like Tonga, Haiti, and South Sudan being heavily dependent on overseas remittances. Remittances can help a family pay their bills, buy goods, or even start a business.
Due to most Appalachian migration taking place within the U.S., there are no statistics for how much money expatalachians remit back home. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the amount may be notable. In an unofficial poll conducted in the Facebook group “Transplanted West Virginians,” 45 out of 137 expatalachian respondents (33 percent) said they were currently sending money back home to Appalachia or had in the past.
Although unrepresentative, these preliminary findings suggest that the expatalachian community remains connected to the Appalachian economy in important ways even after they leave. Anybody looking to include the Appalachian diaspora in economic development would need to get better data on remittances.
In addition to remittances, diaspora communities are also well-positioned to invest in their home area’s economy, as well as persuade other non-diaspora investors to do the same. Investment from the Chinese diaspora played a major role in the rise of China’s economy in the 1990s and 2000s and diasporas are often the only major source of investment for conflict-affected countries, like Somalia.
This kind of diasporic investment was the stated goal of Appalachian diaspora member J.D. Vance in founding Narya Capital, a Cincinnati-based venture capital firm endowed with over $93 million. However, critiques of Vance’s venture capital activities may reveal the limits of a “big name” investment in Appalachia. Some critics say venture capital firms are after quick returns on investment rather than building up a community’s economic base, and others point out Narya Capital’s investments in particular have tended to cluster in a few already well-off areas rather than in declining communities in need of investment.
As in many developing countries, the role of the Appalachian diaspora investment may be most felt on a local level, with networks of family members and friends helping to finance small businesses that, while not notable on their own, serve as economic engines in their community as a whole. However, as with remittances, data on these micro-level dynamics is difficult to come by for the region.
The final contribution the Appalachian diaspora can bring to the region’s economy is what economists call skills transfer. As evidenced by the many famous Appalachians who have left the region for success in a variety of fields, the Appalachian diaspora contains valuable knowledge and networks that, if properly leveraged, could help seed new economic growth back home by setting up new businesses and teaching Appalachian workers new skills.
Although difficult to quantify, stories of diasporas using their skills to help development abound in the Global South. Indian computer engineers who got their start in Silicon Valley went on to establish India as a major leader in the IT industry. Chile established a program to connect highly trained Chileans abroad, who donate their experience and networks to help Chilean companies be more competitive globally. Perhaps most universally, medical professionals working abroad often volunteer to provide care for free in their home countries.
The possibilities for the Appalachian diaspora to produce similar developments in the region remain unknown. Every diaspora’s geographic distribution and skillsets are unique, and we have little idea about where Appalachians have migrated in recent decades and what industries they’ve found success in. For example, if there were a cluster of expatalachians in California’s entertainment industry, it might make sense to combine their expertise with the region’s natural beauty to market it as an alternative movie production location.
As with remittances and investments, a major step in bringing expatalachians into economic development would be to survey and understand the idiosyncrasies of the diaspora today.
How Do We Use the Appalachian Diaspora?
So, once one understands how the Appalachian diaspora can help the region, the question becomes: How does one facilitate it? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Almost always, diaspora-based development hasn’t been sparked by government intervention, but from the capital, social connections, and skills of the diaspora itself.
However, regional authorities can do some things to help facilitate expatalachian involvement. For one, Appalachian states and the Appalachian Regional Commission could compile data on diaspora remittances and investment to help understand the Appalachian diaspora’s role in the regional economy. Additionally, they could help facilitate expatalachian involvement by setting up an “Office of Expatriate Affairs” as seen in many developing countries or specifically target expatalachians for investment opportunities.
Most importantly though, policymakers seeking to draw on the diaspora for development need to understand that while a diaspora can help on many issues, it cannot be a cure-all for Appalachia’s problems. The same structural factors holding the region back generally, like lack of investment in infrastructure, education, and health, could still discourage the kind of economic development the Appalachian diaspora might bring.
Solving these issues would not only facilitate greater involvement from the Appalachian diaspora, but also help reduce the need for it in the first place.
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Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Washington, DC. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield