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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Connections In Appalachia - Places of Poverty

Lutheran minister Paul Gregory Alms ("Small Towns: Life in a Low Tech Web,", February 19 2010, artfully describes the "connectedness" felt by those who live in small American towns. This connection is not electronic or digital in structure. Instead, it means to be connected to people in the flesh, to actual places, to land and buildings, and to a common past. Here, Alms explains his theory:

"It is this sort of connectedness to place and people and the past that that makes small towns different. It is not an easy set of slogans that can be trumpeted by a political party or captured in a sound bite. It is the shape of the small town itself which has embedded itself in its people. That shape takes the form of a web that connects that person to a multitude of places and people and past experience. That web becomes the stuff of that person; it is his identity.

Such a way of being a person is slowly being worn away by the storm surge of generic commercial culture. The children feel less a part of the small town than their parents who are less connected than their parents. It is an inevitable process. Yet small towns are still here, struggling, battling tough economic. For those who live in such places, their shared past is still felt and passed on." 

Many small town, rural regions of the country are chronically poor and depressed. Though very much still connected through physical environment, residents feel more hopeless and helpless about their progress than ever before.

The majority of poor rural families stay mired in this poverty generation after generation. In her critically-acclaimed book, , published in 1999, Cynthia M. Duncan explored reasons for such long suffering. Based on a five-year study of the lives of residents in isolated areas of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and Northern New England, Duncan found some interesting conclusions.

Here are some generalizations about Appalachia from Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America:

1. Chronic poverty represents long-term neglect and lack of investment -- a lack of adequate investment in people as well as in communities. 

2. In rural areas in America, that lack of investment began as deliberate efforts by those in power -- local elites or employers -- to hold people back. History shows this retardation (in jobs such as coal mining, utilities, or even farming) has enabled those in power to keep the labor force vulnerable and to keep them relatively powerless.

3. Economic control and underinvestment has contributed to a population of undereducated adults out of the mainstream, and while the institutions are poor and inadequate to make up for what families do not offer young people, children live hard everyday lives. 

4. Even though President Johnson's War on Poverty (as far back as the 1960's) focused attention on Appalachia, it didn't really change much because it wasn't a wholesale reorientation towards investing in young people's job training, or job development. It was more of a separate program, not a reorganization of government toward a fairer distribution of opportunities and benefits to hold the government accountable.

5. Children of low-income with good mentors who believe in them have more special attention that makes a big difference in the kind of future decisions these poor children make.

6. Low-income communities and low-income families lack family and community resources that exist in the middle-class setting that give children a deeper second chance ("breaks" so to speak) for greater mobility out of trouble and out of poverty.

7. So, a lack of family stability truly exists in Appalachia. Children who experience predictability in family income, in where their families live, and in what is occurring within their own families are more successful at navigating adolescence. Earning supplements, marriage stability, and even achievement of good grades contribute to increase stable families.

8. The "cultural toolkit" (experience, people, education of civic culture) of low-income children is usually lacking and more individual-oriented, while the middle-class children work efficiently with more tools that are community-oriented in their acquisition. The old "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps idea" does not work well.

9. If one part of the community makes all the civic decisions, the other isolated part feels fearful, suspicious, and "cut out." The poor and isolated people lack three key components in this case: (a) trust, (b) inclusive participation, and (c) extent of investment.

10. Appalachian people feel the "haves" aspire to be like the few very rich people in their communities and they discriminate against the other "have nots."

11. Civic culture is broken because conditions have been bad for so long with a history of patronage of getting things according to whom people know or to people's family names, that there's an ongoing distrust about whether a person will be associated with those who never do any good. This distancing, low-income isolation, makes people feel as if they deserve what they get. The poor, in essence, live with a self-fulfilling prophecy.

12. In actuality, investment in children makes them less likely to get into trouble with the law, less likely to have children out of wedlock, and more likely to finish school. get a steady job, and form stable families.

13. Also, in actuality, national community service for young people such as Job Corps, Americorps, or conservation corps help poor conditions because they reward work and provide support for those in need.

14. Similar to the effects of the civil right movement on individuals, when people in a poor region can begin to develop a kind of pride in their history and a conviction that they can make a difference, social change can occur.


Economist Albert Hirschman wanted to help his fellow development scholars think about the political dimension of development. So, he talked about three choices people in poor places have: "loyalty, exit or voice." Loyalty refers to accepting things as they are, loyalty to the status quo and the powers that be; exit, of course, means leaving -- as many "with get up and go" have, moving to areas of opportunity, leaving behind those with fewer personal and family resources; and voice -- staying and working for change, insisting on equitable investment. That is the political, organizing part.

We know the investments in kids' early education, youth's engagement, stability of parents' work and income make a difference. We also know that mixed-income communities are better -- that it is destructive and costly to isolate poor families in poor neighborhoods where kids' "cultural toolkits" are narrow and underinvestment becomes the norm. (Cynthia M. Duncan, Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, 1999)

Duncan's ideas are featured in the PBS episode "Country Boys," Frontline.

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