Young people are 40 percent of Appalachia’s population today and 100 percent of its future. Two generations ago, however, the future held out little promise for children of the hills.
Their hollow eyes, bare feet and tattered clothes were among the social indicators of hunger and poverty discovered in America’s backyard in the 1960s.
The nation was moved to act. Through a host of government programs, Appalachia became a national laboratory for innovations to help youth leapfrog a dismal destiny of few jobs, little education, poor health care, and possible exodus to cities out of state.
Child experts later concluded: “There are successes where there was once mainly doubt. And that is cause for celebration.”
Today, though, too many Appalachians are still jobless, left behind by a nation rushing ahead to reap the riches of coal and natural gas buried in the bountiful mountainous terrain.
Many have not bounced out of a dependency on food stamps and welfare, or any of the multitudes of programs launched in the name of health and prosperity benefits.
Along countless Appalachian backroads the contrasts are harsh—ramshackle shacks nudging new brick homes owned by coal miners and prosperous state workers and school administrators.
Expensive suburban vehicles and four-wheeled pickup trucks drive down dirt roads lined and littered with home garbage from “up the hollows.”
Still government aid and coal wealth have reached many who previously were poor. Hunger is relatively unknown today compared to records of some 50 years ago.
The percentage of people from central Appalachia below the government’s poverty line has dropped sharply since the U.S. Congress declared war on scarcity and deficiency among Appalachian families in the mid-1960s.
But the region still is not rising out of poverty as fast as many of the nation’s other poor areas.
In McDowell County, for instance, about 40 percent of the people are on public assistance—some are second and third generation welfare recipients.
Coupled with inflation during past decades, the diminished earnings for the average family have taken a heavy toll.
Some mountaineers without jobs or who are at the receiving end of government help find life in these isolated hills even tougher. Their numbers are fewer now, either due to their migration out of the hill country or the region’s normal attrition, but their plight seems worse.
By choice or neglect, many seem to have fallen through the cracks of our welfare system.
Evelyn Mooney began her trek back home to the hills after residing several years in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a typist for U.S. Armed Forces personnel in the Pentagon.
Now Mooney clerks at a local drug store near Bradshaw. She says she is lucky to have a job and has no intention of ever leaving her childhood home again, even if times get tougher than they already are for those determined to stick it out in the region.
“I would like to see our area grow and prosper the way it was many years ago, when I was a little girl, before coal mining died and people lost their income. That is when the mines pulled out and abandoned the old slag dumps at Bartley and Slate Creek,” Mooney observed musingly.
“Our region has bounced back a little bit and the scars and wounds to our environment have healed over, or they have been reclaimed by the woodlands. Still, we feel the pain for those poor souls in our community who are suffering and doing without.”
Jim Davis, 53, of Jolo does not pull any punches when it comes to weighing the changes that have occurred in his quarter during past decades. In the hills where he and his dad, the late George Davis, used to camp when Jim was a teenager, the graduate of Big Creek High School no longer hears the whistle of a groundhog or the scream of a bobcat, and he, too, laments the marks and scars of the strip mines left before the days of reclamation laws were passed.
But while the ups and downs his community has experienced in recent years has troubled him personally, he says he would not consider leaving his parents’ former homestead and move away from the area.
“When Appalachia was ‘discovered’ by John Kennedy in 1960 (during the West Virginia primary), that’s when our mountain values and way of life—our independence and self-sufficiency—started to decline,” says Davis. “The war on poverty made people in these parts feel so low that they could crawl under a snake’s belly with a hard-hat on.”
Then, stuffing a huge quantity of smokeless tobacco into the hollow of his cheek, he added vigorously: “The hunger has gone, and babies’ bellies are full. And a few young people have not sold out to wealth or forsaken their family traditions. What we have learned from the survivors of the War on Poverty is that, at least in this part of the country, we did not have ‘short-comings,’ we just had ‘differences.’”
Davis’s frame house, perched precariously on a hill-side rock-face overlooking the highway, sometimes vibrates from blaring Bluegrass music that he and his wife Laura play on stringed instruments for those who drop in for a cup of coffee or a glass of Laura’s renowned herbal tea.
A “home sweet home” signs hangs over the kitchen pantry, and there’s little question that Appalachia’s music and ethos are alive and well in the Mountain State’s southernmost county, where customs and traditions have been woven like thread into the cloth of the Davis’s hospitable nature.
“We still need the mountains to rest our eyes on,” says Davis, describing his desire for Appalachians to hold on to their unique qualities and culture. “When a lot of folks from the outside retire from work, they either dry up or die, because they don’t know how to relax. Well, from years spent alone in the hills, an Appalachian person knows that leisure is a fine-tuned art. Practically any hillbilly will tell you that he doesn’t mind spending his slow-paced time in the outdoors by himself.”
And yet, the local “hillbilly” vernacular and mountain mannerisms routinely have been scrutinized and derided and demeaned by strangers visiting the remote rural communities for the first time. As far as mainstream America is concerned, the so-called “clannish” and “backward” folk of the hills often are thought of as “the height of ignorance and witlessness.”
“Some of our best mountain craftsmen and hill-land artists have simply melted away, because they are too ashamed to contend with folks from other places,” Davis offered regretfully.
“Since the arrival of cable TV, cellphones, and Facebook, many of the proud and contented people of the hills have chosen to forget their heritage and leave their blood relatives behind. Kids will often ‘high-hat’ their own parents when they are at the mall or attending a school function. They’d rather walk 10 steps in front of mom and dad than to acknowledge their ancestry in front of their friends.”
Davis laughs at his own witty remarks: “They’d rather hitch a ride to school than be seen getting out of their parents old scuffed up and worn-out vehicle. It seems beneath their dignity to wear a coat or a pair of jeans that does not sport a classy label, and they would not be caught dead toting a lunch bucket, let alone a paper bag with a bologna sandwich in it. They’d go hungry before they’d admit they didn’t have money to eat on.”
–Top o’ the morning!