Anyone from Appalachia? Is it getting better?

I remember hearing about some national effort to bring Appalachia into the 20th century. At the time, the median income was very low, indoor plumbing wasn’t a given, jobs were scarce, schooling was sub-par, and the program I saw basically confirmed all the bad stuff we’ve always heard about this region.

I’d like to know how long you’ve lived (or did live) in the region, if the government has helped in raising the standard of living, and does it still have the “otherworldly” quality the reporters talked about. What are your thoughts on the change? Did everyone want it, or are they content to live the simpler life?

While my first knee-jerk reaction was to be offended at the OP (being from this region), there are actually still areas like the ones described–some not far from my home.

Of course, there are also areas like that in most major cities in America.

For some reason, people never think of it like that. It’s always “shocking” and “unbelievable” that there is an area of our country (Appalachia) where some people live without indoor plumbing, the people are extremely poor but still have lots of kids, jobs are not easy top come by and the ones that are to be found are manual labor and education is completely substandard. However, these same people are never as surprised or amazed that some of our extremely impoverished inner cities and ghettoes are very, very similar.

For some reason, it’s okay and just a fact of life when it’s urban but it’s strange and almost creepy when it’s rural. I just don’t get it.

And just like in the urban settings, the government is not doing nearly as much to help people here as they would have you believe.

My first trip to a large, industrialized Northern city was at age 17. Being very stupid, I took an on-foot tour of a ghetto. Being equally lucky, I walked two miles through there without incident.

Never, in the impoverished rural areas of the South, have I seen such human misery as I saw in the middle of Detroit.

So, it’s kinda’ like evilbeth said. There are people not far from here that still have no or limited indoor plumbing. Many use shallow wells as a source for drinking water, and that’s not always safe. But that’s not as bad as what I saw in Detroit.

The government’s contribution, IMHO, is providing free or reasonably priced public education. By using this “bootstrap”, most of the past two generations have been able to better themselves. Some have stayed in these parts, but many have left for better things.
Me, I like it here…

I don’t understand this. All public education is free. Or do you mean college?

EvilBeth, I did not intend to offend anyone with my statements. It is a fact that there was supposed to be some major effort to “modernize” Appalachia, if you will. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. That is why I wanted to hear from people who actually lived there. I don’t necessarily believe that technology is the answer to all the world’s problems, nor do I believe lack of technology is a problem in and of itself.

You’re right about urban ghettos being the same in many respects. I think the difference is that education and a decent wage are much more accessible in an urban setting (which makes it even sadder, in my opinion, that people don’t take advantage of it).

I was thinking of a news story I heard a few months ago about a bunch of New York debutants who were donating their prom dresses to high school girls in Appalachia, so they would know the wonders of looking hot at a school dance. I wondered if anyone thought it was a major insult, or if this truly was an opportunity they were longing for.

Anyway, I just wanted to see if the government’s promise was being kept, and if people really wanted it.

In the past couple of decades, there has been an extensive effort to expand junior colleges and trade schools in the more rural areas. This has created a “way out” for many that could not afford the expense of a traditional college. Also, the trade schools are a boon for those that aren’t interested in a college education. It seems that there is an endless demand for good electricians, auto mechanics, etc.

I think the movies Coal Miner’s Daughter and Deliverance did a great deal of damage recently by propogating the perception that much of Appalachia remains isolated and uneducated. That’s unfortunate because, as mentioned, they don’t necessarily have a lock on this plight.

My recent experience has not been Appalachia but the foothills of the Ozarks so perhaps this is still somewhat in line with the OP. I know several families in a very rural area of western Arkansas. Most fit the scenario of the OP. No indoor plumbing, lots of kids, poor or no job. At least in my experience the rurality (whoa! is that a word?) of the area did contribute to the lack of high paying jobs, no industry, no hospitals, no banks, mainly service stations along the highway. The best paying jobs “in town” (population 415 and 15 minutes on a dirt road plus 10 more on the 'highway" (paved road)) are waitressing and fixing flat tires. Lack of education also seems to contribute to the problem. When you drop out of high school at 16 and start having kids your future may be somewhat limited.

Addressing EchoKitty’s point above I know that these people are aware of government services and qualify for many forms of aid yet they choose to live as they do. For them they are either (slightly) distrustful of the government or simply have too much pride to accept “welfare”. For them there is more honor in living 7 in a trailer with no water than accepting food stamps or medicaid. All I can say is that in the families I know the government services are there, they are aware of them, but choose not to use them.

Coal Miner’s Daughter was set in the early 50’s. Things have changed a great deal since then. Loretta Lynn had never ridden a car until she was 14 and her husband took her for a ride. Sure, there are people I work with (in Tennessee) who remember their aunts & uncles or grandparents not having indoor plumbing. A couple years ago I went to the auction of a farm not more than 3 miles from my house, and the old lady that died didn’t have indoor plumbing even a pump - she drew her water from a well until she died at 87 years old. But for all that, her property was clean and well-kept.

In part, isolation kept people in the hills. But with the building of good roads, military service and the coming of outsiders, these people often saw what they didn’t have and either worked to get it, or left the mountains to find it. They left the hills of Appalachia for the cities. And the cities started coming to them. With the industrialization of the South, and again, the building of good roads, they found they could work outside jobs and still live in their communities. Women started working outside the home and stopped having families as large as those in previous generations. Public schools and the G.I. bill encouraged students to go to college, also exposing them to a different world. I’d say it mirrored the Post-WW II economic boom that the rest of the country experienced, it just took a little longer. That’s not to say that there isn’t still economic depression. The hard fact of it is that when you’re isolated from urban areas with jobs and when the land is not fit to do much farming, either you’ll move out or you’ll be poor (with some exceptions, of course). Some people prefer to live in what they’ve known, even if many would find it very limited, than leave for a different lifestyle with unknown challanges. And unfortunately, the high drop-out rate from school limits the job possibilities for many people.


Time to emerge from lurkerhood in order to fight a little ignorance. This reply is being written from the belly of the beast, the jewel in the crown of Appalachia- Eastern Kentucky. To the credit of the crafters of that article you reference, there is mind-boggling poverty, a slight hike in illiteracy, and perpetuation of some seriously archaic points of view in this area. But to their discredit, the author/s of the piece seem to have overlooked the fact that the opportunities for education and advancement are fruit for the picking, if one but knows where to find them. There are quite a few brilliant minds that have/still call this area home. As far as those sweet NYC girls (so nice to hear of young girls being concerned with charity efforts) are concerned, they could have just as easily donated the dresses to girls from a less affluent neighborhood near them. Girls here buy prom dresses that are just as opulant as theirs. Girls here also lend them out to less fortunate girls. Their effort IS appreciated, though. The gesture was quite beautiful.
I think it all boils down to two things:

  1. Gross generalizations (i.e. all unicorns are pink) are seldom correct.
  2. Pockets of culture nationwide are quite similar (if not in customs, mores, or folkways) in terms of division of wealth (some have it and others don’t), variety of personalities (due to the human condition not being a set mold), and technology eventually expanding consciousness (I know of very few households that are not exposed to at least a small dose of the outside world via the television.).
    It showed wonderful judgement for you to have asked for confirmation from those of us “on the inside”, instead of making an erroneous assumption. I tip my hat to you.

And ours to you, Cherry. You’re a Blossom indeed.

Thanks, Cherry! Your insight is appreciated.

Someone mentioned a general distrust of government by many rural people. My ex (from KY) said that he knew people who lost all due to the TVA, and that it made people want to keep to themselves. I don’t remember much from my school days regarding the TVA, but I thought people were compensated for the land they were moved off of. But I guess that it’s irrelevant when you consider the land had been in families forever and now they were forced to give it up. I wonder if they were fairly compensated. Does anyone remember this unit in American History 101?

I had the same knee-jerk reaction as evilbeth, I have to admit. As someone who lives in southern Appalachia, you do have to confront the “Deliverance” stereotype time and again. But that reaction is unfair to you, EchoKittysince you posed an honest question.

I can’t speak for all of Appalachia–it’s a big region, after all–but only for my corner of it in western North Carolina. Yes, there is poverty, and there are high unemployment rates. This area never had coal mines, but we do have a number of manufacturing plants that are closing down and moving out. That throws a lot of people who had been doing okay financially into more dire straits. There’s also a lot of tourism here. The problem is that jobs in the tourist industry don’t pay particularly high wages.

But it’s not as bleak as media portrayals can make it seem. In western North Carolina, there are three public universities and a number of private colleges. There are also, as John Carter mentioned, lots of community colleges and trade schools. It’s not hard to get higher education, if you’re willing and motivated. There are also plans, which hopefully will get off the ground, to attract more high-tech industry to the region.

If you’re interested, I’d suggest reading some of the novels by Lee Smith or Sharyn McCrumb that deal with life in contemporary Appalachia. They’re both good writers and they give a pretty honest picture of the region. In her latest novel McCrumb has a wonderful scene where she describes how some documentary makers came and filmed old falling-down log cabins in East Tennessee, completely ignoring the modern brick houses they passed on their way to the cabins.

Cherry_Blossom and burundi speak the truth.

There are always pockets of poverty where you have cultural and geographical isolation. Appalachia is no different.

I was born and raised in Harlan County Kentucky, where both sides of my family have lived for several generations, and a few generations before that in Leslie and Hazard counties.

I grew up in poverty in a coal mining family. My parents left Harlan when I was a teenager for the “bounty” of Dayton Ohio. (AKA my own personal hell on earth. No offense to the fine folks of western Ohio meant.)

I was in Harlan just this weekend and found that things are dramatically different than what I remember as a child.

Many of the shacks that used to line hiway 38 are gone, replaced by a river diversion project to prevent or lessen damaging floods.
There is now a shopping area just like what you would see in any modestly sized city in the US, and People seem a great deal more in touch than I remember them as a teenager, but I’m not sure how much of that comes from my age and travels. There are also many new houses in areas that were just forest or the old cabins of mining camps.

Personal rant follows…

If you go looking for poverty you will find it almost anywhere, and having lived a life being labeled a hick, inbred briar, I can scarcely believe that most folks WANT to see what life in Appalachia is truly like, it’s been my experience that most folks only want to know that the myth of it is there so they can have something to feel superior to.

I know that is not the stance taken by the OP, and it was not meant as any form of attack.
ecokitty said…

TVA attempted to compensate families as best they could, but what’s hard for someone not from the mountains to understand is what they took (or more accurately-flooded) was the connection to land that may have been cleared by your Great grandfather, or resentment for the ultimate insult of dis-interring loved ones and such.

No The hatred and distrust of the government goes much deeper than the TVA, it’s an expression of the depth of Appalachian Individualism, after all if you live amongst widespread poverty, the only thing that sets you apart is the content of your character, and how well you can deal with adversity.

Heh. My dad has told me a story several times concerning this topic. My family is originally from southwest Virginia, up in the mountains. However, my grandfather was in the Army and the family moved around the country until my dad was 11 or 12. They were living in El Paso about the time of the story and my dad was maybe around 8 or 9…some time in the 1960s.

Anyway, one day, there was a news report about poverty in Appalachia. The reporter was interviewing this living stereotype of a hick standing in front of an ancient, decrepit shack. Displayed in nice big letters was the name of my dad’s hometown. Naturally, of course, all of the family friends knew where they were from and were all quite concerned. “Can we help? Do you need money? Do you have a house back home?” My grandmother was mortified and my dad never quite lived it down.

Right now, I live in the extreme northeastern corner of Tennessee, almost in Virginia. My city is nice enough, but I have been up in the mountains where there is a lot of poverty. I feel rather odd driving up in some parts though, especially in the really isolated places. People do tend to look at you oddly up there, like you’re a foreigner…even if you only live 20 minutes away.

But it’s not so bad around in the more populated areas.

Ah, the Appalachian stare! You get it every time you walk into a restaurant in a small Appalachian town! (It really gives lie to the myth of “Southern Hospitality,” no?)

I can say this, being raised in the Southern reaches of Appalachia myself. :wink:

You might as well be my next door neighbor. A southwest VAer here, about 35ish miles from the actual town of Appalachia and 45ish miles from TN and KY.

My dad lived in Appalachia for about a year and a half or so before he and my step-mom got married and it’s a fairly depressing little town. I actually hate going there because it’s just so…bleak. Run down coal towns are just very sad.

The surrounding area, while still fairly poor and very rural is no where near as desolate as Appalachia. There are schools and while they’re not great they could be a lot worse too. I rarely hear of anybody without indoor plumbing. Things probably aren’t as bad as people think they are but I suppose if someone is from a large city a place like this would seem like something straight out of Deliverance (that is how my friends from Canada and the Netherlands described Route 58 from Bristol).

A good give away to tell if someone is from the area is how they say Appalachia. Most people in the area (at least where I’m at)say Appalachia (la as in latch, ch like in chair), people from elsewhere tend to say Appalachia (a after the l sounds like the a in lay, ch sounds like sh in shade). And if you say it the wrong way, (Appalayshuh) then you will get the Appalachian stare. :slight_smile:

Well, I am a proud Hillbilly from a long line of what a lot of people would call poor white trash. I also answer to Cracker.

I can describe what it was like one generation ago. I can also give an update as recent as one year past.

My family is all from Kentucky. My father grew up in a holler so far back in the hills the nearest road stopped 2 miles before you got to the house. After that it was walk or ride the mule. No cars.

Coal Miners Daughter would have been very accurate in its representation of my father’s home.

My dad is 65. The distance he has place between how he grew up and how he lives today is a wonder. As previously mentioned no one had running water. My dad’s home had a hand pump over the kitchen sink. A small hole in the side of the hill was where they got the coal they used for heat; a stone lined well with a ladle gave the best water for drinking. Funny thing was they would put small fish in the well to eat the bugs on the surface. The outhouse on the creek was the only bath room.

One room school house, the boys went to 5th grade the girls usually stopped at 9th. My grandpa had a small still to supplement his social security.

Last time I was back the roads were better and you saw more dish TV.I ran across way to many people who were getting a “crazy check” from the government. Lot of folks just sat on the porch till the first of the month. Did some coon hunting. Or sold pot.

This was only what I experienced and surely not representative of the entire population.

I love where my dad grew up, but the only individuals that have “succeded” had to go to Ohio to do it. My dad and some others now have made life so much better for all of us it is hard to imagine. I am the first person in 5 generations to graduate high school and college. (As you can see I am not English major)

I understand Appalachia is just like everywhere else, people can be kind, strong, weak, or mean. But the isolation and despair some feel can be overwhelming and many have to leave to break the cycle of poverty.

I speak about only my own family; other parts of Kentucky and the US are assuredly different. I would love to move back into one of those “hollers” but I would have a choice, many do not. The inertia of some situations is staggering. The freedom to leave is sometimes taken for granted

I do think that poverty in Appalachia gets highlighted because 1) to many people it seems like an almost exotic region, and it’s thus more interesting than poverty in, say, Detroit and 2) it’s at a comfortable distance from most people. Hearing about poverty in your town can make you uncomfortable; hearing about poverty in some poor mountain community is not nearly as disquieting. And, frankly, some backwoods family with a still and an outhouse makes a more sensational story than all the native Appalachian doctors, professors, engineers, and business owners put together.

None of this is to say that poverty and isolation aren’t problems, but it isn’t representative of all or even most of the region. As other posters have pointed out, things here have changed a lot in the past fifty years.

Great observation about the pronounciation, fizzestothetop!

Looks like you could practically be my next-door neighbor also. I live in E. Tennessee, approximately 45 minutes from the Bristol Speedway.

I wasn’t offended by the OP, really. It was my first reaction but then I started thinking about it. People are interested in this area because it seems uniquely separate from their own lives. They can drive to the poorer areas of the inner cities in their areas but the mountains of Appalachia still seem remote to them–even though I can drive to houses that have no indoor plumbing. In fact, several years ago, I dated a guy whose family had only had indoor plumbing for a couple of years.

I love this area–it is breathtakingly beautiful and completely steeped in heritage. Some of the attitudes in this area I could live without but there are ignorant people everywhere. I honestly don’t think I could live anywhere else.

I’d also like to add, as other have done, that I appreciate you asking questions about the area, Echokitty, rather than just believing stereotypes.