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  • January 6, 2003
    Revisiting the persistent poverty of Central Appalachia
    By Ellen Gerl

    Michael Harrington's 1962 book TheOther America helped spawn theWar on Poverty by calling attentionto impoverished regions in the country,including Appalachia. It also inspired SusanSarnoff to enter the field of social work.

    To help celebrate the 40th anniversaryof the book's publication, the social workerrevisited the author's observations aboutpoverty in Appalachia. To her dismay, littlehas changed.

    The Other AmericaWhile poverty shrank in southern andnorthern sections of Appalachia, Sarnofffound the problem persists in the centralregion that encompasses West Virginia,southeast Ohio, and parts of Pennsylvaniaand Kentucky. Some Central Appalachiancounties show poverty rates three times thoseof the nation's poorest counties and unemploymentrates double the national average.

    "It's a shame that it (the book) stillrings true," says the Ohio Universityassistant professor of social work.

    Sarnoff presented a paper on thesubject in August 2002 at "Rediscovering theOther America: A National Forum onPoverty and Inequality." The work alsowill appear in a special commemorativeissue of the Journal of Poverty to bepublished this fall or sometime next year.

    The reasons for poverty in the region arenumerous. Unlike Southern Appalachia,aided by federal money and attention duringthe Civil Rights movement, "CentralAppalachians were never helped by the federalgovernment," says Sarnoff, who chairs a graduateprogram focused on social work in ruralenvironments. In addition, she says theregion's geographic isolation has discouragedmany businesses from locating here and keptit "invisible" to urban-oriented politicians.

    "Policy makers often live in cities and theyget away from the city to what they think ofas a rural area -- Vail or their summer homein Connecticut," she says. "They do notunderstand what it's like to live in a ruralarea lacking access to sewers, reliable phoneservice, clean water, or public transportation.

    "There's also a certain attitude that ifpeople want to help themselves economically,they can move to the city," Sarnoff adds.

    That notion suggests there is a city nearby.Indeed, many Southern Appalachians foundjobs in Atlanta; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; andMacon, Georgia, cities that in return garneredfinancial aid. In contrast, she says CentralAppalachia is "simply not a commutablearea." And people in Central Appalachiawant to stay.

    "I don't know of a place in the worldthat residents love as much as people in thehills love the hills. That has to be respected,"Sarnoff says.

    Central Appalachians' rocky history withthe coal industry also helps to explain theirreluctance to leave.

    "As long as you own your own piece ofland, you can grow your own food. Youdon't have to work for 'the man,'" she says.

    Still fresh in this generation's mind arestories of coal companies forcing familymembers to give up their land and workfor money, then stay at work at gunpointuntil they'd paid off debts to the companystore, Sarnoff explains.

    However, Sarnoff's readings and personalobservations offer hints of economic hope.

    "We're on the cusp of somethingexciting," Sarnoff says as she describesconsumers' increasing desire for homemadegoods, organic foods, and the desire to"buy apples from an orchard you can visit,"products and experiences that manyCentral Appalachian businesses market. Butfor now, she adds, Central Appalachiaremains "very much the other America."

     

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