Poverty in Appalachia

Posted: 25 April 2014 in Uncategorized


I was bewildered, and not a little angry, after reading Trip Gabriel’s report on poverty in Appalachia, “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back,” which was published in the 21 April edition of the New York Times. So, I turned to West Virginia native and Appalachian scholar Dwight Billings to find out what he thought. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him.

The New York Times giveth and the New York Times taketh away. What are we to make of the recent article, “50 Years into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back?” That Lyndon Johnson’s “war” against poverty failed? Sure it did. But not without leaving behind innovative and lasting programs such as food stamps and Medicare, not to mention the mobilization of thousands of concerned citizens who were willing to fight poverty by becoming VISTAs and Appalachian Volunteers—efforts challenged, then as now, by the hard Right. That poverty is simply unsolvable, even in a rich nation like the United States? Sadly, that could be read as one of its messages.

What does the Times leave us with in a positive vein? A compelling picture of poverty, suffering, job loss, and diminished hopes in rural America where, it reports, 46 million people live below the poverty line and where drug abuse is a scourge.

What does the Times taketh away? A real understanding of why poverty—and drug abuse—are both prevalent throughout rural and urban America. Much like reality TV, the article invites us to share in the pathos of poverty but doesn’t lead us beyond voyeurism and “aren’t we lucky we’re so much better off than ‘those’ people?”

Readers of the Times’s visit to McDowell County. West Virginia—once one of the most productive  centers of coal production in the United States, and now one of the nation’s very poorest counties—are led to encounter a “rural Detroit,” a “hell with no way out” in the words of one of its residents. We read about drug abuse and also illiteracy, isolation, broken families, school dropouts, and—perhaps most telling in terms of the frame that readers are called to summon up as the correct lens for viewing poverty –a dependence on government benefits that has been “passed on from generation to generation.”

Could the author of this dispatch have found a more perfect place on which to pitch neoliberal, anti-welfare shibboleths about personal success and failure than in Appalachia? Despite the best efforts of Appalachian scholars and activists to displace them, myths—with a pedigree dating back at least one hundred and fifty years—wrongly but insistently depict Appalachia as benighted, corrupt, backward, and irredeemable. This, despite the fact that Appalachia has one of the best-earned but mostly under-appreciated histories of struggles for economic justice in the United States. While a few social programs are mentioned in the Times report, this act of drive-by journalism fails to register McDowell County’s long and enduring history of labor, grassroots, interracial,  and environmental activism. And in how many other places can it be said, other than in several of McDowell’s small cities in the 1930s, that African-Americans and Jews were predominant in the offices of town governance?

Instead of the tired old saga of a supposed culture of poverty in places life Appalachia and Detroit, why don’t Times reporters give us stories about the pathologies of the rich and the usurping of the fruits of other’s labors?  To the Times editors and readers, I must ask the refrain of that old song, penned in the midst of the labor wars in Appalachian Kentucky during the 1930s,  and translated to other struggles for economic justice from the Civil Rights movement to Occupy Wall Street: “Which Side Are You On?”

  1. […] David Ruccio on Poverty in Appalachia (and how it is reported) […]

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