The dilemma of talking about Appalachian poverty

Every once in a while a major media outlet rolls out a story on poverty in Appalachia.  A little while ago The Guardian took a crack at it.  The result is pretty standard for the genre.

In fact, journalists have been making similar copy out of Appalachia since the nineteenth century.  What sets these more recent examples apart is the emphasis on drug addiction and the decline of the coal industry.  (I’ve always found it ironic that one of the stereotypes about Appalachia is the idea that it’s a primitive region where time stands still, when in fact it’s the ideas people have had about Appalachia that have remained remarkably consistent for over a hundred years.)

Poverty is a tough issue to deal with in any context, but addressing poverty in Appalachia is especially thorny.  On the one hand, there are parts of Appalachia in which poverty is a very pervasive and systemic problem, one that bears talking about.

On the other hand, one problem that Appalachians of pretty much all socioeconomic backgrounds face is the prevalence of stereotypes.  And one of the most common stereotypes about the region is the notion that it’s uniformly and singularly poverty-stricken.  So by talking about the problem of Appalachian poverty, it’s easy to contribute to the problem of Appalachian stereotypes.

Furthermore, one of the reasons poverty in Appalachia is hard to address is the fact that many Americans simply tend to ignore what goes on in the region.  And one of the reasons people ignore it is because they think it’s just a place full of incurably poor people.  It’s quite a dilemma.

The only way out of it, I think, is to ensure that when we talk about poverty in Appalachia, we don’t let ourselves adopt the sort of despairing tone that too often characterizes these sorts of discussions, in which poverty is a problem too wide and too deep to try and fix.  And, crucially, Americans must always remember that when they’re talking about poverty in Appalachia, they’re talking about their own fellow countrymen.

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