Examine Poverty, Not the Poor

When Ashley Judd recently spoke before a crowd of 800 demonstrators during the “I Love Mountains” rally in Frankfort, Ky., she projected an image of Appalachia different from the stereotypes normally seen on most newscasts.

She referenced the beauty of the mountains that gave her a sense of place as she grew up in eastern Kentucky’s Floyd County, but labeled the destructive mining practice of mountaintop removal a scourge on the land. Calling for a green collar economy to replace the power of the coal industry, she gave voice to the continuing push-back by local people for more options and economic opportunity in the mountains.

A few days before the rally, ABC’s 20/20 aired “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains.” That program highlighted the plight of four children in Appalachia who face a steep mountain climb for a dignified life. Drugs and alcohol played a significant role among the parents in three families living a hardscrabble existence, forcing the children seemingly to parent the adults.

One fellow became the first high school graduate in his family, but slipped off the ladder leading out when he withdrew from college after only eight weeks. Another fellow, unintentionally fathering a child, scrapped his dream of a military career for a life underground in the coal mines.

Stacked back-to-back, these vignettes paint the portrait of Appalachia viewers expect. However, sometimes we use a magnifying glass to examine the poor when we really need a picture window to view the whole economic system.

The “culture of poverty” theory, so convenient and popular in the 1960s, emphasized fatalism as a way of life characterized by little rebellion or questioning. When the War on Poverty sputtered as it attempted to include local participation in programs to overcome this fatalism and alienation, a paradigm shift took place. Academics recognized that local folks were constrained by their political and economic powerlessness.

County officials oversaw the federal poverty funds and many officials manipulated the programs to enhance their control. Local power structures in the mountains served the interests of absentee corporations that owned the timber and coal resources and controlled the land like a mineral colony.

Studies show that the deepest pockets of poverty are located in the richest coal mining counties in eastern Kentucky. The underground economy always thrives where there exist few alternatives. OxyContin that commands sometimes $120 a pill floods the hollows when unscrupulous doctors and pain clinics lack the necessary supervision in dispensing prescriptions. All over America the culture of medication has ballooned to the delight of the pharmaceutical industry.

Jobs in the coalfields have diminished in the past few decades because of advanced technology and better equipment. With fewer jobs and coal severance taxes flowing out of the area, an inadequate tax base encourages talented teachers to leave. Additionally, mountaintop removal, the cheapest way of mining coal, threatens the quality of life by polluting the water and denuding the mountains. Meanwhile coal profits soar.

Without this structural analysis, those of privilege can easily “blame the victim” for not moving or protesting or joining the system — in short, for being poor.

Voices like Ashley Judd’s are calling forth an achievable future with green collar jobs. The change needed will demand the public policy that supports the environment, but with investment will come a key ingredient. Economic opportunity in harmony with creation amounts to hope and hope represents the spiritual component to fight addiction and transform stale stereotypes.

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