“Chronic poverty in rural areas, and urban areas for that matter, really represents long-term neglect and lack of investment -- a lack of investment in people as well as communities. And in the rural areas that I know in America, that lack of investment began as deliberate efforts by those in power -- local elites or employers -- to hold people back. Because it has worked for them, to keep their labor force vulnerable, keep them powerless.”
-Cynthia M. Duncan, Professor of Sociology
And so it goes... the "poor, poor" cries of Appalachia. What can be done, if anything?
Statistics show the effect of long-term underinvestment: low education, low employment, high disability, chronic problems. These histories of underinvestment are still playing out in contemporary isolation for poor people, preventing them from being able to get together what it takes to be part of the mainstream.
The adults are undereducated, the institutions are poor and inadequate to make up for what families do not offer young people, and everyday life for these kids is just plain hard.
Even during the '60s and President Johnson's so-called “War on Poverty,” Appalachia experienced increased attention but not much substantial change. Duncan says, “Without greater commitment to investment in education and skills, without a significant economic engine to create the kind of jobs that support a solid middle class that can be holding government accountable, it didn't have a lasting, far-reaching effect for the region.” (Cynthia M. Duncan, "Why Poverty Persists In Appalachia," Frontline interview, December 29 2005)
Let's Work On Education
All schooling is not the same in Appalachia. The level of expectations and the quality of education varies greatly throughout the region, even throughout districts within specific counties. Some schools in poor rural areas lack quality in schooling the underprivileged, so, naturally, the expectations for at-risk students aren't as high as they are for middle-class kids – this can be a vicious cycle in which schools treat their poor students with low expectations and these students, in turn, believe in these limits and attempt to achieve little personal growth beyond.
This type of freely administered self-exclusion produces a large body of students with no aspirations of getting outside their particular class or situation. They live in a world of only the poor, and they are being told over and over that they do not belong in another group. Duncan states, “I'm sure a therapist would say that in a way it's helping poor students cope. I don't pretend to know about that. But I do think it's also part of blaming yourself for where you are and accepting the way other people are blaming you.”
Students' personal expectations are largely based on their experiences in the world that they know. When they think about their futures, they imagine only the most immediate world around them as framing that future. Many kids coming from a really poor neighborhood imagine themselves being like their aunt, the person next door, or maybe a teacher they admire. They structure their behavior to conform to "what people like us do." Thus, the individual most confident of working towards a good future must have the support of the community of people “who care for them.”
Duncan stresses the importance of mentoring for better education. Duncan states, “We see this over and over, and rigorous evaluation studies show that mentoring makes a real difference for kids at risk, kids who are disconnected... the kids who made it were those who had mentors who believed in them, that when a young girl or boy would get special attention from a coach or teacher or an aunt or an uncle, it could make a big difference in the kind of decisions that he or she made going forward.”
What else can seriously restrict the options of poor children within their own communities and seriously damage their potential for mobility out of poverty? Consider the way the Appalachian community works. Many of these communities have a mindset of behavior that confirms special treatment by “That's the way things are done around here.”
Upper and middle-class kids do make mistakes and get into trouble. However, Duncan believes family resources and the access to community resources in upper-class and middle-class settings give kids a second chance that is deeper and different than what we see in low-income communities and for low-income families. In truth, the lower class shoulders the blame for most problems in the Appalachian community while being deemed unworthy of “a second chance.”
Finally, family stability is very important. Kids who can have predictability in the family income and where families live and what's going on in the family, are time and again more successful at navigating adolescence. A set of studies, including a project called "New Hope" in Chicago and others documented by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation have shown that an intervention to give earnings supplements to families in exchange for getting the household heads and partners in the families to work steadily, has a positive effect, not only on family well-being and marriage stability, but even on how the kids did in school, what their grades were -- presumably because it is interjecting the stability.
Cynthia Duncan thinks of civic culture as having three components:
1. The extent of trust in the community,
2. The extent of inclusive participation,
3. The extent of investment.
Do people trust one another, or are they fearful or suspicious?
Is one part of the community making all the decisions, leaving others isolated and cut out?
How much are people investing overall in community institutions and how much do they care whether those institutions are open to everyone, even "the kids at the end of the road" who are hoping for a chance for mobility?
In these Appalachian communities people talk all the time about haves and have-nots. And the haves aren't rich people necessarily; they're people who aspire to be like the few very rich people. They really do discriminate against the kids from the hollows.
Please read these words of Duncan and consider Scioto County:
“One of the things that's going on in that region is this kind of broken civic culture where, because things have been bad so long and there's a history of patronage and getting things according to who you know or your family name, that there's an ongoing distrust and nervousness about whether you'll be associated with those who never do any good. And so there's a distancing -- the low-income families are really isolated from the others, made to feel they deserve what they get.
“You know, even if 40 percent of the people in a community are poor, it means 60 percent are not. So we have to ask ourselves, what are those 60 percent doing and thinking? And in the case of these chronically-poor places, my experience and others' is that they're distancing themselves from the poor rather than looking for ways to bring them into the Boy Scouts or into the after-school program or into the same church as the more middle-class folks.
“That means that the cultural toolkit is constricted and constrained in ways that can perpetuate poverty because the individuals are experiencing such isolation, living in a world of only the poor, and being told over and over that they do not belong in another group.”
My Bottom Line
We have wonderful communities and terrific school districts in Scioto County that rally around their children as they support sports, social activities and cultural events. I am very proud to live in Scioto County, a truly beautiful part of Appalachia. As a past teacher at Valley High School, I have served on the front lines, and I feel fortunate to have taught so many excellent students.
Yet, as I read what Cynthia Duncan says, SO MANY things strike me as true. Top to bottom, adults to children, our sense of community does not extend to many of those in dire need. Being such a small, rural county of approximately 80,000 residents, Scioto County can be considered one, integrated community of loosely related villages and districts. We have the promise and the ability to build stronger and better ties to benefit all county youth, but we must bring the various districts together.
Consider Duncan's concept of civic culture in our county:
1. Would you say the community of Scioto County works to foster great trust of community in our youth?
(trust for politicians, local government officials, law enforcement, media, educators, adults)
2. Would you say the community of Scioto County encourages our youth to have great inclusive participation?
(using efforts to be inclusive as a county of all races, creeds, religions, persuasions and appreciate their diversity)
3. Would you say the community of Scioto County puts a great investment in our youth?
(investments of money, time, and attention to the needs of all classes)
I would honestly answer “no” to all three questions. Just how much are we doing to FOSTER civic culture? I believe we certainly do too little. Celebrating and sharing our differences may help break down these obstacles to better civic culture, while holding onto old grudges and being exclusive only create greater divisions.
Consider Duncan's “underinvestment” discussion as it relates to our county:
1. For whatever reason, do a great number of capable adults in Scioto County show resistance to educating themselves and, thereby, foster that same resistance to learning in their own children?
2. Do we in Scioto County too often show two sides to fairness and equity by employing a “That's the way things are done around here” mindset of disparity?
3. Do we, intentionally or not, help create a judgmental class system in Scioto County that divides our individual school populations ever-stronger as they progress K-12?
4. As a Scioto County community, do we, as simply residents, take far too few opportunities to mentor the development and the education of our youth?
I believe the answer to each question 1-4 is “yes.” I know we can better our situation.
To improve our status, we in Scioto County must help foster the education of more adults, correct the “Old Boy” favoritism and clannish mentality that contributes to injustice, be more active in tearing down walls that confine the poor and needy, and EACH of us must take an active role in mentoring all aspects of the daily education of our youth.
I'm not talking about sports, schools, churches, civic groups, other structured programs and institutions that people assume will properly educate the youth of Appalachia. I am talking about You and Me. WE must see that WE do these things. Only then will significant change result. Like it or not, we all are part of our problems, and our youth is our greatest commodity.
"My whole thesis is
that you can't understand America
until you understand Appalachia."
-Jeff Biggers, American author, journalist, playwright