Poverty Rate in Appalachia & Causal Factors


The war on poverty is hardly over, and in some areas, the progress that was made in the 1960s is now coming undone.  Julian Omidi discusses the poverty rate in Appalachia, and its causal factors.

In the United States, poverty can hit a community as quickly and effectively as a sledgehammer; a region whose economy was largely based on one particular industry finds itself destitute if that industry folds.  While many of us might think of the economic downturn as being the harbinger for the new and rapidly dividing economy, there are some segments within the U.S. that were never prosperous, and whose statistics seem unlike what should even be possible in the nation that was globally viewed as the “Land of Opportunity” for more than a century.

In Appalachia (the region in the Eastern and South Eastern United States stretching from the southern portion of New York State down to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi), there was always poverty; during the Great Depression, photographs of locals created the widely recognized face of rural hardship.  However, in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was established largely to address this horribly underserved community by providing welfare and meal stability programs.  The bit of federal security combined with the coal mining industry managed to keep the locals in a manageable economic condition for a time, even though the poverty rate was still high, tens of thousands of people were saved from destitution.[1]

Fast forward to the 1990s, when the coal mining industry was on the decline.  The residents with the highest levels of education, the most drive and the most prospects were beginning to leave for greener pastures, and those who remained were largely older, less educated and dependent upon governmental assistance to get by.  Combined with a burgeoning drug culture and an increase in unplanned teenaged pregnancies, the poverty rate began to climb – and climb and climb.  Today, in the southern portion of West Virginia, the poverty rate is a staggering 41 percent among families with children.

The fact that nearly half of families are living in poverty is nothing short of astonishing; the fact that 46 percent of children in McDowell County do not live with a biological parent is heartbreaking.  These statistics are due to the absurdly high number of parents either in prison, dead or simply gone – having abandoned their kids to the care of relatives or neighbors.  Furthermore, the use of narcotics and prescription drugs is overwhelming.  According to data from Welch Community Hospital, out of 115 babies born in their facilities, 40 had been exposed to drugs prenatally.

Drugs, entire industries leaving communities and crime have all played a part in creating a seemingly hopeless environment.  There are no simple solutions; we can only open our eyes to the way our fellow Americans are being forced to live and do our best to ease some of their burdens.

By Julian Omidi


[1] Gabriel, Trip: 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back New York Times 4/20/2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/21/us/50-years-into-the-war-on-poverty-hardship-hits-back.html?src=me&_r=0


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