Not Another Coal Miner's Daughter
Appalachia isn't all Mason jars and patchwork quilts.
If you are looking for a celebration of the region, this is not the place you will find it. I love my home, and my affinity for Appalachia is palpable. But to truly love something, you have to have a firm grasp on the dark parts. And boy, do we have some dark parts.
Days ago, Tim Sullivan released a story in the AP news (link below) centered on Covid-19's economic impact on Appalachia, specifically Athens County, OH. Ohio University's student-operated paper The Post, barely took a breath before composing an editorial which made very clear that their editors did not read the entirety of Sullivan's piece, nor do they truly understand the deep-rooted impact of poverty in our region.
The Post article did not have a single author I can address. The content of the article is the majority opinion of its editorial board. Regardless, the thesis of misrepresentation would lie in their distaste of this statement by Sullivan: "Yet it's impossible to paint a picture of this swath of Appalachia without describing its deep and pervasive poverty. While COVID-19 itself hasn't hit hard yet, its economic impact is further squeezing a region that can barely afford it."
So...where is the lie?!
I, too have been angered at outsiders coming in to exploit parts of Appalachia for profit, generating poverty porn for onlookers to gawk at with pity and awe, or writers and directors to use as perceived charity work. I was not affected in this way by Sullivan's article. If you happen to read The Post article, you will be told that Sullivan doesn't acknowledge the breathtaking beauty of our area, the hardworking residents, the resilience and charm, and the programs that work hard to provide needed support. But as I already stated, The Post editors obviously did not read the whole article. I mean, in all fairness, Sullivan's piece was very long.
I won't give my whole bio, but to avoid being labeled as a "parachute writer", I will out myself as a life-long Appalachian before going any further. Childhood Sundays were Baptist hymns, buckets of chicken and crawdad hunting with the brothers. My mother raised 3 kids on her own and kept a shotgun beside her bed that I saw her have to use more than a few times. We did not have a childhood dentist. One friend did not have indoor plumbing; another friend was homeless; another had a mother addicted to crack cocaine; another was ran-out of our home town because he was gay; another arrested for stealing pharmaceuticals; another didn't make it. I am not an outsider looking in; I am insider who has looked out for as long as I can remember-an insider who made a very deliberate decision to stay in. And while none of these incidents are relatively unique to Appalachia, our region does have combined sets of systemic barriers and cultural characteristics which are not found in the rest of the US, and which are impacted in unique ways by the global pandemic.
There is this thing that people like to say about children: they are so resilient. I've said this when a toddler falls and hits her head, or when a client tells me about the time her son found her crushed pain pills and ingested them. We like to say this about our people too. Appalachians are so resilient.
And sure, this is true. Many have found ways to cope and survive with the special set of hardships that come with being Appalachian; and hell, a lot of Appalachians don't live in survival-mode each day, and are doing quite well. However, to ignore the disparity would do a disservice to a large group of people who are suffering. According to a study in Health Affairs, which I will link below, the mortality rate for both adults and infants is alarmingly higher in Appalachia than the rest of the country. And if you are not white...well:
"The numbers are even starker when stratified by race. In the most recent years studied, a black man in Appalachia could expect to die about three years earlier than a white man in Appalachia and a year younger than a black man elsewhere. A black man living in a high-poverty area in Appalachia could expect to die a full 13 years younger than a typical white woman in a low-poverty area elsewhere in America. That’s roughly the life expectancy difference between the United States and Rwanda."
The depths of poverty that permeate regions of this scenic and culturally-rich part of the US have cultivated a class that cannot be labeled as part of the traditional economic hierarchy. The lack of infrastructure and the cultural reinforcement of social stagnation have created a class of people who cannot (and, in some cases, absolutely would not) access the initiatives being put forward by local social service groups aimed to help those living in poverty. The county's home weatherization program, meant to provide aid to those who cannot make the necessary modifications to their home to make it safe and economically efficient during scorching summers and frigid winters has a waiting list that is currently YEARS long. Most food pantries require a couple of pieces of documentation to get food boxes, and even though most wouldn't turn away a hungry family, that family needs to have transportation to the food box anyway-for many families in our region transportation is not something quick to come by, and for some, the gas it would take to make the oftentimes hour (or more!) round trip just isn't feasible. Many other programs require lengthy applications and a couple of meetings-just enough steps to frustrate and overwhelm a group of people who are statistically more likely to be functionally illiterate than their non-Appalachian counterparts. This is not to say that the social programs, particularly in Athens County are not wonderful. They truly do help many families. However, the need is greater than the resources available, and the available resources are too difficult to access for a portion of the population.
So at this point, some of you may be thinking, so what? Appalachians have increasingly voted against candidates who would be more likely to thwart austerity measures that take necessary resources away from communities in need. Some argue that if this invisible group within Appalachia isn't going to do anything to help themselves, what business does anyone else have to put effort into helping them? If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone complain about the way food stamps were used; condemn a poor person for buying cigarettes while their children eat food from a pantry, or say "there are jobs if they want them" (in so many parts, there are absolutely not), I would have enough money to not need to use this free website builder. How do you propose to instill political awareness, a sense of civic duty and financial responsibility into a group of people who were born into a long cycle of daily survival? And how do you instill an understanding of that daily survival into those who have no clue what it is like to eat from a government-issued box, or have to dig change from a couch cushion, praying it's enough gas money to get you to that box? And while I have focused on food as a deep-poverty marker, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start to look at what lies under the surface you find people shoved so far into isolation that the conditions are truly horrific. And perhaps the scariest part of the impacts Covid has had, in my opinion, is that schools are currently unable to plant the seeds of a better future for some of these kids who are otherwise thrust into the dark full-time.
The topic of Appalachian poverty deserves nuance; however, I don't appreciate this trend of automatic anger when an author chooses to focus on the poverty rather than the scenery, the music and the other parts of the culture that aren't hard to look at. Visibility is important, poverty impacts public health, and we need the government to know that there are not enough initiatives here. But we have a responsibility too. As an employee of a social service agency, I operate under the philosophy of empowerment over dependence...but that's another rant for another morning.
ThePost article: https://www.thepostathens.com/article/2020/10/editorial-southeast-ohio-appalachia-associated-press-covid-19
Mortality Rates: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/08/the-early-deaths-of-appalachians/536031/#:~:text=The%20trend%20he's%20seen%20is,new%20study%20in%20Health%20Affairs.