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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sweet Home, Appalachia


Ron Eller, professor of history at the University of Kentucky and author of Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South contends popular stereotypes and misreading of Appalachian history have long provided a convenient excuse to ignore Appalachia or to justify public and private attempts to bring the region into the cultural mainstream.

According to Eller (www.dailyyonder.com, April 11, 2010), "The cultural conservatism that has often fueled a misunderstanding of the region's history and problems is grounded in economic conditions, hopes, and values that reflect those of the larger society. Appalachia is only the 'other America' if we want to ignore the contradictions and challenges of our time."


The Social and Economic Stratification In Appalachia

Appalachia is home to over 20 million people and covers parts of mostly mountainous areas of 13 states. Many factors contribute to problems that continue in the area. To help residents understand their plight, this blog entry highlights social and economic divisions important to addressing the region's future development.


1. The near-isolation of the area's rugged topography is home to communities with a distinct culture, who in many cases are put at a disadvantage because of the transportation and infrastructure problems that have developed in the area. (Hurst, Charles. 1992. Inequality in Appalachia. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences)

2. Outsiders' often incorrect and over-generalized external perspectives, and their relationship to culture and folklore of this near-isolated area, are important to the region’s future development. (Hurst, Charles. 1992. Inequality...)

3. Though industry and business did exist in Appalachia prior to the 20th century in such major modern industries like agriculture, large-scale coal mining, and timber, many Appalachianites sold their rights to land and minerals to such corporations, to the extent that 99 percent of the residents control less than half of the land. Thus, though the area has a wealth of natural resources, natives are often poor. (Hurst, Charles. 1992. Inequality...)

4. Communities that are not considered to be "growth centers” are bypassed for investment, and fall further behind. In 1999, roughly a quarter of the counties in the region qualified as “distressed,” the Appalachian Regional Commission's worst status ranking. Fifty-seven percent of adults in central Appalachia did not graduate high school (as opposed to less than 20 percent in the general U.S.). (Denham, Sharon; Mande, Man; Meyer, Michael; Toborg, Mary. 2004. Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations. Holistic Nursing Practices), Roughly 20 percent of homes have no telephone and the population is still declining. (Thorne, Deborah; Tickamyer,Ann; Thorne, Mark. 2005. "Poverty and Income in Appalachia." Journal of Appalachian Studies)

5. Instead of being tied to the land, jobs in the towns tend to emphasize industry and services—important signs of a more diversified economy. However, aside from the major urban centers along its perimeter, the entire Appalachian region still suffers from population decline and the loss of younger residents to the cities.Towns closer to the major highways and nearer to the many larger cities fringing the region (Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta) are disproportionately better-off than rural regions in the mountainous interior.

6. Sheer inequality in power exists between the classes. Historically, elites, interested in satisfying personal goals have controlled Appalachian politics to the expense of the region's poorer residents. (Hurst, Charles. 1992. Inequality...) Seeing no personal benefit to establishing infrastructure, they generally eschewed developments that would have been difficult and expensive to establish in the mountainous areas. Instead, they allowed the region to rely on industry—using barges to send natural resources to market, requiring that workers have only minimal education, etc.--and created no infrastructure for business.

7. The Appalachian people have developed a fatalistic attitude. (Billings, Dwight. 1974. "Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis." Social Forces. vol. 53:2); many suggest that this is due to the history of political corruption and disenfranchisement. Says a volunteer in the area; “The people usually regard politicians as crooks who won't do anything." (Vidulich, Dorothy. 1995. "Church at home in Appalachian hills." National Catholic Reporter)


8. The elite class instilled strong systems of inequality into Appalachian politics and economy. For instance, the powerful have a history of encouraging racial divisions in order to divide workers and pit them against each other, spurring competition and serving to lower workers’ wages. (Duncan, Cynthia Mildred. 1999. "Civic Life in Gray Mountain." Connection: New England's Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, Vol. 14, Issue 2) Family history and economic status are also bases of discrimination. One resident notes, "If you have a rich name, they'll take you--otherwise you can't get no work."

9. Seeing no personal benefit to establishing infrastructure, they generally eschewed developments that would have been difficult and expensive to establish in the mountainous areas. Instead, they allowed the region to rely on industry—using barges to send natural resources to market, requiring that workers have only minimal education, etc.--and created no infrastructure for business. (Billings, Dwight. 1974. Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis); many suggest that this is due to the history of political corruption and disenfranchisement, which led to weak civic cultures and a sense of powerlessness. Says a volunteer in the area; “the people usually regard politicians as crooks who won't do anything. (Shaw, Thomas; DeYoun, Allan; Redemacher, Eric. 2005. "Educational Attainment In Appalachia: Growing With The Nation, But Challenges Remain."  Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 10:3)

10. Almost 30 percent of Appalachian adults are considered functionally illiterate. Educational differences between men and women are greater in Appalachia than the rest of the nation, tying into a greater trend of gender inequalities.  (Shaw, Thomas; DeYoun, Allan; Redemacher, Eric. 2005. "Educational Attainment In Appalachia: Growing With The Nation, But Challenges Remain."  Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 10:3)

11. Women have traditionally been confined to the domestic sphere, often lack access to resources and employment opportunities, are disproportionately represented in peripheral labor markets, and have lower wages and higher vulnerability to job loss. Throughout the region, women typically earn 64 percent of men’s wages, though they work as many hours. (Denham, Sharon; Mande, Man; Meyer, Michael; Toborg, Mary. 2004. "Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations." Holistic Nursing Practices 2{X)4:I8(6):293-3O1)

12. The same forces that put barriers in place to prevent the development of civic culture promulgate the image of Appalachian peoples as politically apathetic, without a social consciousness, and deserving of their disenfranchised state. In spite of the region’s desperate need for aid, weariness of being represented as “helpless, dumb and poor” often creates an attitude of hostility among Appalachianites. (Mellon, Steve. 2001. "Carefully Choosing the Images of Poverty." Nieman Reports, 00289817, Vol. 55, Issue 1)

13. Appalachia constitutes a separate status group under the sociologist Max Weber's definition. Criteria are tradition, endogamy (Marriage within a particular group in accordance with custom or law.), an emphasis on intimate interaction and isolation from outsiders, monopolization of economic opportunities, and ownership of certain commodities rather than others. (Hurst, Charles. 1992. "The Theory of Social Status." Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition.

  
To say that the social and economic future of Appalachia is clouded is an accurate statement. Is the key to urban growth attracting and retaining the skilled? Few skilled people move from outside of Appalachia to Appalachia's towns. So, the key for Appalachia most likely is to retain its own skilled people. Some believe the "greening" of Appalachia is important to retaining its youth and eventually extending its growth. Whatever is needed most, promoting an alternative future is most necessary. The "good old days" of Appalachia's traditional industry power base seem certainly to be times of the past.

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