It is a sad situation when people cannot afford the things they need. This is, however, the truth in Appalachia today. The area, ranging from New York to Georgia, is statistically the poorest area in the nation (Thorne 342). Why? What are the causes of Appalachian poverty and how can they be combated? How does Appalachian poverty affect the rest of the nation? What is being done about it?
The reasons behind Appalachian poverty are many and varied. Some are systemic, some are cultural, some are individual. Part of the problem came in the form of welfare reform. With the goal of getting people off the welfare rolls, welfare was changed to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which has a work requirement. A long-term study of women coming off of welfare did not show betterment in the standard of living or income levels after coming off welfare (Henderson).
Having a work requirement for welfare recipients is problematic, especially for senior citizens (Henderson). Jobs are scarce in Appalachia, and whoever is doing the hiring has his or her pick of qualified candidates (Couto 408). The tendency is to hire young workers, because they are less likely to have health problems which would require time off work. Ageism is a huge problem. Why should a company hire an older person, even if that person is experienced, when they can hire a younger person that requires training much more cheaply, both in terms of wages and lost productivity due to ill health? (Henderson)
The laws of supply and demand pose another problem to Appalachia. With relatively few places offering employment, a labor surplus is created. This surplus allows companies to hire who they wish without wages that are as high as other places, without benefits, and with little regard for the employee as an individual. Companies in an area with a labor surplus know that workers are replaceable (Couto)
Shipping challenges because of mountains are not only a problem for companies, they are a problem for farmers. How can you sell produce when mountains surround you and there is no market close by? How do you sell produce when it is cheaper at Wal-Mart and most people have to buy cheap food or starve?
The costs of Appalachian poverty are as varied and enormous as poverty itself. With people unable to afford food, there will be higher numbers of people on the welfare rolls. This not only raises taxpayer dollars, it changes the culture of the area. Appalachia, traditionally, is stubborn and prideful. It has a “do or die” attitude. With increasing numbers of people on welfare, however, this stubborn independence is giving way to a “why try for anything better” attitude (Fuchs).
As a result of poverty, schools in Appalachia will deteriorate. If schools cannot afford to hire good teachers, then the students will not be taught well. These students will be less able to compete in a global economy and be successful in the real world. High school graduation rates will decline along with the number of Appalachian students attending college. Over time, the schools will deteriorate further and further until the “education” offered is completely useless. A good education is necessary to finding a job and getting out of poverty. (Ziliac)
It is impossible to afford good, nutritious food on minimum wage. Therefore, since the options are bad food or no food, most people opt for bad food. A family of four can eat a meal at McDonald’s for under 10 dollars. It is very difficult to cook a nutritious meal for that amount, especially for more than one person. Quite literally, residents of Appalachia cannot afford to care what they eat or how nutritious their food is.
With obesity comes other diseases. High cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease: all of these diseases caused by food (or the lack thereof). These other diseases cost taxpayers untold amounts in social security disability, Medicare, Medicaid, and other medical programs (Centers for Disease Control).
The problems are obvious, the solution less so. This is not a situation that can be fixed by throwing money at it. It is a systemic failing, and must be addressed by fixing the broken system.
Jobs in Appalachia must be created in order to solve the challenge of Appalachian poverty. When Oak Ridge was founded in the 1940’s in east Tennessee, the whole economy of the area boomed. Money flowed from the residents’ hands into the hands of local people, enriching the entire area. The founding of TVA was another step toward ending poverty in Appalachia. By building the dams, the government created jobs for the unemployed masses. TVA is still an important employer near any dam built on a Tennessee lake. Only by creating jobs is it possible to put money in the hands of the people, where it will work for the good of the area (Couto).
Creating jobs will solve the labor surplus problem, but it will not solve the mountains themselves. Roads will need to be reworked so that they are easily traversable. If that happens, then companies will be able to work in Appalachia, but to get them to do so, there will need to be an incentive.
Ending the labor surplus will create a situation where the local employers are fighting for the best workers, which will raise real wages. With a higher wage, citizens will be able to afford better food (Couto). State revenue from income taxes will rise even if the tax rate itself does not change. This means better schools and more Appalachian students leaving for college.
To help farmers, a local farmers market should be opened. If farmers have a place to sell their produce, then they too will enjoy the benefits of added income and the entire area will benefit.
Not everyone is a farmer or someone seeking to work for a company. Artisan goods are still created and in demand; the trouble is finding a market to match what is made. Craft shows are common, but they reach a narrow audience. If marketing and other business training were offered, it would be easier for artisans and other self-employed people to find markets for their work.
Schools are critical. Education is vitally important to the health of a community. Social events, assistance to needy families, and countless other things are done through the schools. An educated populace is one that can face through the problems given to them by a world economy in recession. If the populace is educated, then they can better compete for jobs in a global economy (Ziliak)
The main institutions for social justice work in Appalachia are the churches. Churches have opened food pantries, clothing closets, collected school supplies-whatever needs doing. It is a rare church that does not get a call at least once asking for help with bills or medicine. There are many social justice and anti-poverty institutions in existence that are associated with some denomination of Christianity. A few of them are Angel Food Ministries, Christian Appalachian Project, and the Jubilee Project.
Angel Food Ministries has the goal of helping to stretch the food budget of whoever buys from them. The Atlanta-based ministry works by purchasing frozen food items according to orders turned in in advance, putting them in boxes, and selling them. The money for the orders is due at time of purchase. Order deadlines are usually in the first or second week of each month, when it is common for people to have money. The food is picked up in the last week of the month, when it is typical for household funds to be low. Purchasing from them, a box of food (mostly frozen meats and entrees) costs $30.00. In stores, a box of food with comparable items would cost double that amount. The menu changes every month, but it is a good way for people struggling to make ends meet to be able to eat (Angel Food Ministries).
Christian Appalachian Project, also known as CAP, was founded in Berea, Kentucky, by a Catholic priest. The founder, sent originally to start a church in Berea for the students who were not allowed (at the time) to leave town to attend mass. He was renovating the building when the people started to come to him. The people needed clothes, food, basic necessities. Shocked by their poverty, the priest started the Christian Appalachian Project to help them. He chose the name Christian Appalachian Project instead of Catholic Appalachian Project because of local prejudice against Catholics. Today, the Project is ecumenical and is being headed by a Methodist president (Jones).
CAP works to repair homes, offers GED courses, teaches job-readiness courses, and runs teen centers. The organization works in four different states in Appalachia in several counties per state. In 2000, they operated with 270 full time staff and roughly 49 full-time volunteers on a $70 million dollar budget. Donations were drawn from over 1,000 churches (Jones).
The Jubilee Project in Sneedville, Tennessee, is located in one of the poorest counties in the nation. It is a United Methodist-affiliated ministry, and their director is ordained United Methodist clergy. The work the Project does is ecumenical, however, and is quite broad in scope (Jubilee Project)
They founded the Clinch Appalachian Artisans’ Cooperative to help artisans market and sell their wares, and the Community Kitchen program is designed to help farmers develop recipes for food (salsas, hashes, preserves, and other things of that nature) to sell. They assist with nutritional labeling of the food products that are made there. The Jubilee Project offers counseling and training as part of their food, farm, and artisan small business programs (Interview).
According to Steve Hodges, director of the Jubilee Project, their program goals currently consist of 6 items:
1. “To develop social and recreational opportunities and personal development for children, youth and young adults.
2. To create sustainable business and job opportunities and increase people’s economic control over their lives
3. To provide and enable learning opportunities, working through and assisting other groups whenever possible
4. To respond to community needs with appropriate aid and staff time, working with and through other groups whenever possible
5. To network with related groups
6. To obtain the resources needed for all the above.” (Interview)
Implementing those goals is a challenge, partly due to Sneedville’s location. The town is far away from other social services and places that offer needed training. There are no markets nearby for farmers and artisans to sell their wares. In addition to all this, Tennessee does not have an income tax to support basic programs (Interview)
The work of the Jubilee Project is hard to quantify. Part of their successes comes in forming strong ties with the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce, the County Leadership Program, and the County Drug Use Prevention Coalition. Another part of their success is in increasing entrepreneurship in the area (Interview)
There are other views about how to combat poverty; the three programs listed here are by no means a comprehensive sampling. With an obstacle as multifaceted as poverty, more than one approach is both desirable and necessary to combat it. The poor may always be with us, but that does not mean that they have to suffer. It is our responsibility as human beings to take care of each other. Part of that is making sure that everyone has food to eat and a roof over his or her head. If the basic things are impossible for even one person to afford, the entire human race is being derelict of duty.
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