12 January 2014

Wither Appalachia?

"The Hunger Games" books and movies revolve around a impoverished small city in Appalachia.  The real Appalachia isn't under a totalitarian regime, but the quality of life there is only marginally better.

Owsley County, Kentucky in the hear of Appalachia is the poorest county in the United States and suffers many of the same problems as other underclass urban ghettos although it has about half the violent crime, more of its teen mothers are married and more of its poor families include married couples.
Owsley County, Ky. – There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class . . . mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for . . . . 
[Y]ou have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007. If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation. . . .

There is still coal mining — which, at $25 an hour or more, provides one of the more desirable occupations outside of government work — but the jobs are moving west, and Harlan County, like many coal-country communities, has lost nearly half of its population over the past 30 years. . . .

There is here a strain of fervid and sometimes apocalyptic Christianity, and visions of the Rapture must have a certain appeal for people who already have been left behind. Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one.
From Kevin D. Williamson, "The White Ghetto" in the National Review (January 9, 2014).

One wonders if the best solution wouldn't be to follow the approach to the local unemployment problem once used by at least one major American city: pass out bus tickets to places where there are actually jobs to be had.  Appalachia has more people than its current economy needs, and more than it has any reasonable prospect of needing for decades to come.  Even many of the employed there are basically serving the needs of people who remain only out of inertia and because government assistance checks make it possible to do so.

Pushing a policy of work rather than welfare only makes sense if there is work to be had.  And, in Appalachia, locally at least, there is no work to be had.

On the other hand, if you are going to be poor, it is probably better to do so in a place where the cost of living is low, the scenery is pretty, the locals understand you and your culture, and violent crime is lower than in urban ghettos where you might otherwise live.  And, it is entirely possible that the unemployed of Appalachia would be unemployed any place that they went.  Most of those with better prospects elsewhere have already left.

The behavior of the poor in Appalachia is also often self-defeating.  These are people who pay America's favorite tax on the mathematically challenged - scratch off lottery cards - in droves.  These are people who trade the $500 of food they could get for their families with food stamps for $250 in cash (laundered via cases of soda) often used for cigarettes, meth, and illegal prescription drug addictions, leaving their children to go hungry.  Drunks abound.  Good work ethics are rare.

What is one to do with a land full of losers?

There will always be some significant proportion of the population that is stupid, lazy and self-destructive.

But, advances in technology have made them ever more economically useless than they used to be.  Factory workers now need to be able to repair sophisticated precision machinery and tweak complex software, rather than simply engaging in repetitive manual labor.  Modern automobiles and trucks need less maintenance and more academic knowledge to do the maintenance that is needed.  Each miner can produce more coal while old seams have less coal to be mined.  ATMs, online retailing, video kiosks, steaming video services, automated gas pumps, and self-checkout machines in grocery stores have dispensed with many entry level banking and retail jobs.  E-mail and e-filing has put postal workers and photocopier operators out of work.  Audio recording has displaced many court reporters and secretaries.

While many people of poor are temporarily poor but would be self-supporting given the right opportunities, others are incapable of being economically productive even if they don't formally qualify as "disabled."  Dealing with this kind of poverty is about harm reduction and is a classic NIMBY problem - there is something or someone who is undesirable to all, but needs to be somewhere, and the question is how to sensibly decide where.

Perhaps, as the author suggests, the answer to the cultural failures created by concentrations of poor people is dilution and a depopulation of Appalachia via out migration of the poor until it reaches a population that its economic resources can support comfortably is the answer.  Or, maybe a dramatic expansion in the size of the U.S. Army in a pretty unselective manner could suck large numbers of unemployed people from the region and put them on track towards better futures with wider horizons.

Of course, maybe this analysis presents too dim an assessment of the possibility of self-improvement.  Could some dramatic Great Awakening-style revival turn a culture of failure into one in which whole communities manage to turn themselves around and make something of themselves and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?  Perhaps.  I can imagine several historical precedents for that sort of thing, most recently, African Christianity in the late 20th and early 21st century.

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