Appalachian Poverty

Poverty in Appalachia is widespread and severe. The poorest families seem to gravitate to areas that are often called the ‘hollows’. The hollows are back areas in the mountains - these areas are largely owned by coal companies and many of the poor live there as squatters. The coal companies do not seem to care that the squatters are there and seem to expect them.  When the coal ‘plays out’, the mining operations move out and the squatters move in. A new community then begins.

Abandoned trailers and abandoned company buildings become homes. Sometimes FEMA trailers are available. Those who can get a FEMA trailer are lucky, indeed, as these are likely to be fairly new and in reasonable condition.

Winters are difficult. Many children do not wear shoes in warm weather, but save what they can get for cold weather. Their heating systems are both friend and enemy. Coal is a cheap and, sometimes, free way to heat, but trailers are not properly equipped to heat with coal. Many of the trailers that I have seen have a stovepipe sticking out from a window. Fires are common and fire trucks are not readily available in the hollows.

The roads in the hollows are mostly single lane, and are widened every few hundred yards so that oncoming traffic can pass. I haven’t ventured into the hollows except in a four wheel drive vehicle. (We once had to abandon the road when a vehicle approached. Our driver was a local who knew the roads). Many of these roads were built by the coal companies for their equipment.

In Kentucky, the state has provided some interesting help for those in the hollows. School buses make pickups. The people have mail delivery. I find this commendable on the part of the State, since many of the people are squatters and probably don'’t vote or pay taxes.

In 1996, the state of KY mandated that the power company provide electric service to families in the hollows. The electric lines were run in and meters were installed. Although the infrastructure was provided at the cost of the utility company, electricity users must pay their own utility bills. Previous to this, people were illegally tapping into the grid. This practice is still common in some areas. Accidental electrocutions were not rare.

Education and illiteracy are major factors in promulgating poverty. The vast majority of educational systems require parental participation. This does not work in a community where there is a high concentration of illiteracy. It has been shown that children of illiterates begin to fall behind other children by the time they reach the third month of kindergarten.  Less than 62% of adults in Pike County, Kentucky have high school diplomas and less than 10% have college degrees. 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.

CAP is a mission that provides soup kitchens, shelters and many other services in Eastern and Central Kentucky. They provide the following facts about poverty in that area:

1.  Sixteen counties in central and eastern Kentucky are included on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau list of the 100 poorest counties in the nation.

2.  Owsley County, which has CAP outreach, elderly services, housing and job training programs, currently ranks as the seventh poorest county in the country with 56.4% of the children living in poverty.

3.  In some areas of Appalachia, as many as 16.8 percent of the homes are classified as substandard.  That is, it has more people than rooms and is without indoor plumbing.

4.  Rates of poverty among children under the age of 18 in Appalachian Kentucky range from 17 percent in some counties to as high as 56.4 percent in others.

5.  Almost 59 percent of the children living in CAP's direct service area are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced lunches.  In one area that CAP serves, over 90 percent of the children are eligible.

6.  Almost two-thirds of the Kentuckians who left the welfare roles in 1999 are working at jobs that pay less than $8 an hour.

McDowell County, West Virginia

In June 2007,  I visited the area around Gary, WV and observed many problems in the area and met a number of the needy folks there. This trip prompted me to write about some of these observations and about some statistics published specifically about McDowell County.

Demographics of McDowell County.

1. The poverty rates and illiteracy rates are very high. In McDowell County, WV, the poverty rate is 33% with 49.4% of the children living in poverty. Unemployment is over 30%. The number of disabled persons over the age of 5 is between 40% and 45%. The percentage of high school grads among folks age 25 and over is less than 50%.

2. Infrastructure is poor. McDowell County has an area of 534 sq. miles but has only one U.S. Highway. County roads are poorly maintained due to low tax revenues. Municipal water systems serve a small percentage of the population and one of the four does not deliver potable water. Flood control is poorly managed. McDowell experienced two 100 year floods two years in a row – 2001 and 2002. In 2002, fifteen percent of the homes and businesses were destroyed and thousands of others severely damaged. Thirteen lives were lost. Today, one home in six remains unoccupied.

3. Sixty seven percent of the households have no wastewater treatment, allowing 314,000 gallons of untreated waste per day to enter streams and rivers.That's 13 ½ gallons per resident. EPA statistics indicate that 558 persons in McDowell are drinking untreated groundwater. They also concede that the number is under reported.

4. Tax base is very low. Sixty percent of the land in McDowell is owned by absentee corporations that do not contribute to the tax base, yet spend millions in lobbying to defeat legislation that would clean up the air, water and flood problems. Less than 6,000 persons are employed full or part time.

5. Coal Mining scars the land and scars the people. When miners can work, they live well but own little. The company store owns them, their credit and their futures. Mining provides prosperity for a short time but has long lasting effect on the land and people in the forms of water and air pollution, flood problems, disabilities, black lung, emphysema. Mercury levels are high everywhere due to coke processing. You don't have to go into the mines to be affected – their families are exposed to significant health hazards as well. Many problems remain long after the coal companies move out.

6. Population decline. Population in 1950 was over 98,000. According to 2000 census, population was 23, 000. Today it's under 20,000. In 1950 the workforce was estimated to be over 50,000. Today the workforce is 6,000 of the 23,000 total population. Average family size is 2.4. The seeming disparity between population (23,000) and workforce size(6,000) is, in part due to the fact that there are over 10,000 persons who are disabled and not part of the work force. Death rate exceeds birthrate by 28% - 310 vs. 397 anually.

7. Many children are being raised by one parent or, very often, a grandparent.

8. Educational systems universally depend upon parents to augment the system by assisting children with homework and study disciplines. When the parents are illiterate, the children quickly fall behind.

Pictures of poverty - click on images for larger view