Written by John E. Mahlberg
I was recently asked what, in my opinion, was the number one cause for poverty in Appalachia.
This is a very broad and perhaps loaded question. As a proud resident of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia, I have grown to detest the words “Appalachia” and “poverty” being used in the same sentence – as they are generally only used in a derisive manner by some graduate student who pronounces the mountains outside my window as “App-ah-lay-sha,” instead of “App-ah-latch-ah.” Pronouncing “them thur hills” by the first term is a dead giveaway that the person knows nothing about this area other than what he or she has read in a book. The mountains of Georgia and Maine may be “App-ah-lay-sha,” but no mountain within 200 miles from here is called that.
Nevertheless the question was very piercing and caused me to dedicate serious thought to its answer.
First, I had to determine the merits of the question. Are the people of “App-ah-latch-ah” really impoverished?
Though in my pride and love for home, I am tempted to scream to the top of my lungs, “absolutely not,” the reality is that I do not even need to pull the census data or any other published research to know that the communities of Northfork, Kermit or dozens of other towns just like them are living far below the standard of what should be acceptable for America. I say this not meaning to be offensive against anyone, but simply out of an honest and undeniable assessment.
But why? Why are so many areas that were once thriving communities now wrecked by poverty? Why is it that you can’t leave anything out in your yards of value for fear of the “neighbors stealing anything that ain’t nailed down?” What is the number one cause for poverty in Appalachia?
As with most questions of grave importance, there truly isn’t one clear cut answer and in answering this question, I do not pose myself as an expert in the least. I can only write based upon my life’s experiences, which encompass four decades of living in what is referred to by every do-gooder this side of the Mississippi as “Impoverished App-ah-lay-sha.” And my life’s experiences are as follows:
1. Too many eggs have been placed into one basket.
As was stated in another article earlier this week, “Any community built around a single industry, coal, a large manufacturer, tourism or anything else, is just one phone call away from looking like a ghost town along historic US-66… or US-52 for that matter.”
The reality is that for better or worse, coal is a dying form of energy and is quickly being overtaken by natural gas as well as alternative fuels. This is a hard one for me to bite personally, as my family has been employed for generations by this industry and I was educated on money my dad brought home from the coal mines. To put it simply, I am and have always been a friend of sensible and responsible coal mining.
Unfortunately, the writing is on the wall and the longer we sit around complaining about it vs. looking for new industries to fill these voids, the farther we are going to be behind when the inevitable finally happens.
2.) Government handouts
A consequence of point number one is Mr. Government arriving on the scene to help the poor and helpless folks of “App-ah-lay-sha,” because after all, they are far too uneducated to find a way out on their own.
Big Brother Government arrived on the scene back in the 1960s and has been doling out clothing vouchers, food stamps and countless other “entitlements” to virtually anyone who desires to sign on the dotted line ever since.
Now don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that people fall upon hard times and that in a civilized society a safety net is necessary – unfortunately, what I see on a daily basis is not a safety net of government aid, but a hammock of government handouts.
Over my lifetime, I have watched the destruction of my community and the one person to be blamed above all others is Uncle Sam. It was his “war on poverty” that has ensured its very survival for generations.
While I work +70 hours each week, barely hoping to “get by” and satisfied for what I get, my neighbor and countless others in my community have inherited a mentality of “Why work when I can get my meals, housing, electricity, healthcare, clothing and anything else I want — including pills — from the government?”
To use a term I often heard my dear ole mother say, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
A true story – I was recently in a tiny grocery store in McDowell County, West Virginia, and went to purchase my milk at the counter. The cashier looked at me and the five dollar bill in my hand and acted like she had never seen a cash transaction for milk in her entire lifetime – up to this point, all milk purchases had been funded by… well, I guess… me.
Uncle Sam’s free goodie bag of stuff has in turn removed any incentives for the common people to diversify their local economies from the coal industry – which is why problem #1 (mentioned above) even exists in the first place.
The excess time so many now have on their hands, a direct result of problems #1 and #2 have resulted in generations “looking for a buzz” when they should be looking for a job and has culminated in a government funded prescription drug pandemic.
The bottom line is this — government programs in Appalachia designed to eliminate poverty have become the greatest fuel for its continuation. To put it simply, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
This article may be a bit offensive to some, but it is coming from someone who has lived in Appalachia his entire life and has dealt with the common man on a daily basis. Until we remove the incentives for many people in this region not to work, many people in this region will not work.
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