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Friday, July 31, 2015

Scioto: Part of the "Big White Ghetto"

"There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread -- hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants.

"Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.

"If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation."

(Kevin D. Williamson. "The White Ghetto: In Appalachia the country is beautiful and the society is broken." National Review. January 09, 2014.)

Kevin Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the director of the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellowship in Political Journalism. We, here, in Scioto County, Ohio, are residents of this Appalachian "Reservation." All here can attest to the accuracy of Williamson's colorful description of our home. The ever-present misery in our daily existence is cradled by poor health, lack of jobs, and hopelessness for a better life. 

The high unemployment and low wages in the region stem directly from the historical patterns of concentrated land and mineral ownership and industrial development. It is a long history of how a region rich in natural resources has, over time, become a forgotten area for commerce and development.

Yet, great progress has been made throughout the Appalachia region in developing an infrastructure of good highways and interstate access, industrial development zones, and a sound education and health care system. But conditions in the Central Appalachia's still lag behind the rest of the nation.  By 1990 poverty in the Central Appalachia region was still 27%, compared to 13.1% for the rest of the nation.

In 2015, the region still lacks an adequate job base and extremely low income levels. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest report, persons in Scioto County living below poverty level from 2009-2013 was 23.3%. That means a full quarter of Scioto County residents are living in poverty, and indications are that it is getting worse. Habitat For Humanity reported Scioto County was the second in Ohio Appalachian counties for its poverty rate based on latest census figures. Scioto ranks 81st of the 88 counties in Ohio in the highest poverty levels. 

We must understand that inadequate education and illiteracy are major factors in promulgating poverty. The vast majority of educational systems require parental participation, and this does not work well in a community where there is a high concentration of illiteracy. Pride of educational achievement and an ethic for pursuing a life-long education are so vital for any improvement in the poverty rates of Appalachia.

Illiteracy rates are fairly high in Scioto County at 10.8%, yet nearby county illiteracy is even higher (Pike 11.7%, Gallia 11.1%, Adams 12.6%, Vinton 13.0%.)

(County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. A Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation Program. 2012.)

It has been shown that children of illiterates begin to fall behind other children by the time they reach the third month of kindergarten. Look to nearby Kentucky. The Appalachian Poverty Project has reported that less than 62% of adults in Pike County, Kentucky have high school diplomas and less than 10% have college degrees. The reports says, "This number is skewed by the fact that the county has a prosperous town with a hospital, doctors, lawyers and merchants. The difference between the “haves and have nots” is extreme."

(The Appalachian Poverty Project. A Component of The Community Foundation of Carroll County.

Not just Appalachians, but all Ohioans could do much better. Between 1.3 to 1.5 million Ohioans scored in the lowest literacy level assessed on the Ohio Adult Literacy Survey conducted by Educational Testing Service in 1992. These individuals are unable to consistently perform functions such as locating an intersection on a map, writing a brief letter explaining an error in a bill, identifying and entering information on an application for social security, and determining the difference in price between two items. (Ohio Literacy Network)

Everyone should be aware of how serious illiteracy is in the United States. Read these statistics:

•  One third of all teens who enter high school do not graduate with a diploma 4 years
later. (Orfield, 2005)
•  $73 billion per year of unnecessary health care expenses are attributed to poor literacy. (Healthcare Study Report)
•  At the current rate of [reading] loss, literacy reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century. (NEA, Reading at Risk)
•  10 million children have trouble reading and 6 million middle and high school students can’t read at [basic reading] levels. (U.S. D.O.E./Alliance for Excellent Education)
•  Illiterate adults account for 75% of the unemployed and 85% of juveniles who appear in court (Education Consumers Clearing House)
•  Children whose parents are unemployed and who have dropped out of school are five times more likely to become dropouts themselves (National Center for Family Literacy).
•  Lack of literacy skills among U.S. citizens cost American businesses and taxpayers an estimated $224 billion each year (United Way).

("Grim Statistics about Illiteracy in Ohio and in the U.S.")

Then, consider these stats from the Literacy Project Foundation:

* In a study of literacy among 20 ‘high income’ countries; US ranked 12th.
* Illiteracy has become such a serious problem in our country that 44 million adults are now unable to read a simple story to their children.
* 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level.
* 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level.
* 44% of the American adults do not read a book in a year.
* 6 out of 10 households do not buy a single book in a year.
* 3 out of 4 people on welfare can’t read.
* 20% of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage.
* 50% of the unemployed between the ages of 16 and 21 cannot read well enough to be considered functionally literate, and they read so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels.
* Between 46 and 51% of American adults have an income well below the poverty level because of their inability to read.
* School dropouts cost our nation $240 billion in social service expenditures and lost tax revenues
* To determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.

If anything levels the playing field for Appalachians, it is pursuing more and more formal education while developing a true interest in learning of all types. While active brains need information to solve problems and to gain meaningful employment, God knows many residents now lack the interest, initiative, and will power to pursue the acquisition of knowledge, preferring instead to accept slanted opinions from media talking heads and their friends and neighbors. 

A proud yet stubborn population, Appalachians in great numbers have allowed their cherished love of isolation to overcome their duty to educate themselves, making them incapable of competing with others while accepting the outside world and all of its varied interests and thriving opportunities. The sacrifice is not so great as to threaten the valued independence of the people.

Becoming better educated and pushing their educational levels will pay huge dividends for the citizens of Appalachia. How to make Appalachians believe that is another matter.

One more quote from Kevin D. Williamson offers an analogy and a rather depressing closing view ...

"Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades.

"As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one."

(Kevin D. Williamson. "The White Ghetto: In Appalachia the country is beautiful and the society is broken." National Review. January 09, 2014.)
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