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The Appalachian region of the Eastern United States is home to over 20 million people and covers parts of mostly mountainous areas of 13 states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, and the entire state of West Virginia [1]. The near-isolation of the area's rugged topography is home to communities with a distinct culture, who in many cases are put at a disadvantage because of the transportation and infrastructure problems that have developed in the area[1].

Appalachia is often divided into 3 regions—southern (portions of Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia), central (portions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee), and northern (parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia) Appalachia[1]. Though all areas of Appalachia share problems of rural poverty, inadequate jobs, services, transportation, education, and infrastructure, some elements (particularly those relating to industry and natural resource extraction) are unique to each sub-region. For example, Appalachians in the central sub-region experience the deepest poverty, partially due to the area’s isolation from urban growth centers[2].

Appalachia is particularly interesting in the context of social and economic divisions that exist within and between the region’s socioeconomic communities. In addition, outsiders’ often incorrect and over-generalized external perspectives, and their relationship to culture and folklore of this near-isolated area, are important to the region’s future development[1].


Poverty, politics, and uneven economic development

Though industry and business did exist in Appalachia prior to the 20th century, the major modern industries of agriculture, large-scale coal mining, timber, and other outside corporate entries into the region did not truly take root until this time. Many Appalachianites sold their rights to land and minerals to such corporations, to the extent that 99 percent of the residents control less than half of the land. Thus, though the area has a wealth of natural resources, natives are often poor[1]. Since at least the 1960s, Appalachia has a higher poverty rate and a higher percentage of working poor than the rest of the nation. Wages, employment rates, and education also lag. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was created in 1965 to address some of the region’s problems, and though there have been improvements, serious issues still exist. Communities that are not considered to be "growth centers” are bypassed for investment, and fall further behind. In 1999, roughly a quarter of the counties in the region qualified as “distressed,” the ARC’s worst status ranking. Fifty-seven percent of adults in central Appalachia did not graduate high school (as opposed to less than 20 percent in the general U.S.[3] ), roughly 20 percent of homes have no telephone, and the population is still declining[4] .


Infrastructure as an agent of poverty

One of the factors at the root of Appalachian economic struggles is the poor infrastructure. Though the region is crisscrossed by many U.S. and Interstate highways, those routes primarily serve cross-country traffic rather than the locals themselves. Towns closer to the major highways and nearer to the many larger cities fringing the region (Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., etc.) are disproportionately better-off than rural regions in the mountainous interior. Instead of being tied to the land, jobs in the towns tend to emphasize industry and services—important signs of a more diversified economy. However, aside from the major urban centers along its perimeter, the entire Appalachian region still suffers from population decline and the loss of younger residents to the cities.

Another factor affecting development has been sheer inequality in power between the classes. Historically, elites interested in satisfying personal goals have controlled Appalachian politics to the expense of the region's poorer residents.[1]. Seeing no personal benefit to establishing infrastructure, they generally eschewed developments that would have been difficult and expensive to establish in the mountainous areas[1]. Instead, they allowed the region to rely on industry—using barges to send natural resources to market, requiring that workers have only minimal education, etc.--and created no infrastructure for business.[5] Now, with roughly 100,000 jobs left for miners, Appalachianites are unable to access jobs or the resources and opportunities necessary to lift themselves out of poverty.[6] Some academics contend that the situation of Appalachianites amounts to one similar to that in third world countries: Residents live on land that cannot be traded outside of trusted circles or used as collateral because, due to the history of unincorporated businesses with unidentified liabilities, there are not adequate records of ownership rights.[7] This “dead” capital is a factor that contributes to the historical poverty of the region, limiting Appalachianites’ abilities to use their investments in home and other land-related capital.[7]

Political inequalities

The elite class instilled strong systems of inequality into Appalachian politics and economy. For instance, the powerful have a history of encouraging racial divisions in order to divide workers and pit them against each other, spurring competition and serving to lower workers’ wages[8] . Family history and economic status are also bases of discrimination: one resident notes of employers, "If you have a rich name, they'll take you--otherwise you can't get no work."[8]

Since the 1800s, coal operators and plantation bosses have discouraged education and civic action, allowing workers to become indebted to plantation stores, live in company housing, and generally make themselves vulnerable to the interests of their powerful employers[8] . Community members that experienced a justifiable fear of punishment for speaking out against the corruption of the status quo developed a habit of compliance rather than democratic institutions for social change. Fearful of punishment, middle class residents allied themselves with the elites rather than challenging the system that colored their everyday lives. Burdened by the choice between exile and exploitation, the actual and potential middle class left the region, widening the gap between the poor and those in power[8] . Observers often perceive a fatalistic attitude on the part of the Appalachian people[9]; many suggest that this is due to the history of political corruption and disenfranchisement, which led to weak civic cultures and a sense of powerlessness. Says a volunteer in the area; “the people usually regard politicians as crooks who won't do anything."[10]

Educational disadvantages

In 2000, 80.49 percent of all adults in the United States were high school graduates, as opposed to 76.89 in Appalachia[11]. Almost 30 percent of Appalachian adults are considered functionally illiterate[11]. Educational differences between men and women are greater in Appalachia than the rest of the nation, tying into a greater trend of gender inequalities[11].

Gender inequalities in Appalachia

Women have traditionally been confined to the domestic sphere, often lack access to resources and employment opportunities, are disproportionately represented in peripheral labor markets, and have lower wages and higher vulnerability to job loss[3] . Throughout the region, women typically earn 64 percent of men’s wages, though they work as many hours[12] . Women are also often the hardest-hit by poverty—for example, 70 percent of female-headed households with children under the age of six are in distressed counties, a figure substantially higher than the national average[4] .

Outside perspectives and stereotypes

Though mainstream Americans assume that Appalachian culture is homogeneous within the region, many distinct locales and sub-regions exist[13] [9] . Over-generalizations of Appalachianites as impulsive, personalistic, and individualistic “hillbillies” abound. Many scholars speculate that these stereotypes have been created by powerful economic and political forces to justify exploitation of Appalachian peoples[9] . For example, the same forces that put barriers in place to prevent the development of civic culture promulgate the image of Appalachian peoples as politically apathetic, without a social consciousness, and deserving of their disenfranchised state. In spite of the region’s desperate need for aid, weariness of being represented as “helpless, dumb and poor” often creates an attitude of hostility among Appalachianites [14] .

Appalachians as a separate status group

It has been suggested that Appalachia constitutes a separate status group under the sociologist Max Weber’s definition[15] . Criteria are tradition, endogamy, an emphasis on intimate interaction and isolation from outsiders, monopolization of economic opportunities, and ownership of certain commodities rather than others[15] . Appalachia fulfills at least the first four, if not all five[9] . Furthermore, mainstream Americans tend to see Appalachia as a separate subculture of low status. Based on these facts, it is reasonable to say that Appalachia does constitute a separate status group[1]. [9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Hurst, Charles. (1992). Inequality in Appalachia. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition. Pearson Education. pp 62-68.
  2. ^ Tickamyer, Ann; Cynthia, Duncan. (1990). Poverty and Opportunity Structure in Rural America. Annual Review of Sociology. 16:67-86. Retrieved November 28 from Academic Search Premier.
  3. ^ a b Denham, Sharon; Mande, Man; Meyer, Michael; Toborg, Mary. (2004). Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations. Holistic Nursing Practices 2{X)4:I8(6):293-3O1. Retrieved November 30 from Academic Search Premier.
  4. ^ a b THORNE, DEBORAH; TICKAMYER,ANN; THORNE, MARK. (2005). Poverty and Income in Appalachia. Journal of Appalachian Studies. Volume 10 Number 3. Retrieved November 29 from Academic Search Premier.
  5. ^ Narciso, Dean. (1998). Appalachia spring: Will it ever come? Christian Science Monitor, 08827729, Vol. 90, Issue 215. Retrieved November 28 from Academic Search Premier.
  6. ^ Foer, Franklin, Allen, Jodie T. (1999). Is Poverty Fixable? U.S. News & World Report, 00415537, Vol. 127, Issue 3 Retrieved November 28 From Academic Search Premier.
  7. ^ a b Deaton, James. LAND “IN HEIRS”: BUILDING A HYPOTHESIS CONCERNING TENANCY IN COMMON AND THE PERSISTENCE OF POVERTY IN CENTRAL APPALACHIA. Journal of Appalachian Studies. VOLUME 11 NUMBERS 1 & 2. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Academic Search Premier.
  8. ^ a b c d Duncan, Cynthia Mildred. (1999). Civic Life in Gray Mountain. Connection: New England's Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, Vol. 14, Issue 2 Retrieved November 29 From Academic Search Premier.
  9. ^ a b c d e Billings, Dwight. (1974). Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis. Social Forces vol. 53:2. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Academic Search Premier.
  10. ^ Vidulich, Dorothy. (1995). Church at home in Appalachian hills. National Catholic Reporter, 00278939, Vol. 31, Issue 39. Retrieved November 29 from Academic Search Premier.
  11. ^ a b c Shaw, THOMAS; DeYoun, Allan; Redemacher, Eric. (2005). EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT IN APPALACHIA: GROWING WITH THE NATION, BUT CHALLENGES REMAIN. Journal of Appalachian Studies. Volume 10 Number 3. Retrieved November 29, 2007 from Academic Search Premier.
  12. ^ Oberhauser, Ann; Latimer, Melissa. (2005). EXPLORING GENDER AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN APPALACHIA. Journal of Appalachian Studies. Volume 10 Number 3. Retrieved November 28 from Academic Search Premier.
  13. ^ Oberhauser, Ann M. (1995). Towards a gendered regional geography: Women and work in rural Appalachia. Growth & Change, 00174815, Spring95, Vol. 26, Issue 2. Retrieved November 29 from Academic Search Premier Database.
  14. ^ Mellon, Steve. (2001). Carefully Choosing the Images of Poverty. Nieman Reports, 00289817, Vol. 55, Issue 1. Retrieved November 28 from Academic Search Premier.
  15. ^ a b Hurst, Charles. (1992). The Theory of Social Status. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition. Pearson Education. pp 46.


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