I’ve had poverty on my mind. I was thinking about it in terms of violent crime and social problems more broadly. I will be writing more about this topic, but Appalachia seems like a good starting point. I’d been meaning to write about this for a long time, and I finally felt I had to do some more thorough research, despite my desire to focus on other things.
It has been bugging me. It’s a nagging set of thoughts at the back of my mind. Some time ago, I had a debate in the comments section of one of my posts. It was about white violence in specific areas of the South with a long history of violence. I made some claims based on data I’d seen, but once challenged to prove my claims I realized how complex the data was and too often lacking. I temporarily retracted my claims and promised myself I’d eventually get to the bottom of the issue.
I’ll explore this further in coming posts. For now, I wanted to share a few comments I made in response to a blog post that wasn’t particularly worthy of responses. I can be a glutton for punishment sometimes. Here is the post by someone who calls himself bharford:
His basic argument is that white Appalachians are a model poor group, maybe similar to how Asians are a model minority. They’re poor, but still “good people.” Ya know, honest and hardworking folk who go to church on Sunday. Not like those other poor people.
There isn’t much point in reading the post itself. He only shares a bit of data. The only reason I cared at all was because these past weeks I’ve come across a lot of info that I’d never seen before, neither in the blogosphere nor in the mainstream media. Heck, much of it I haven’t even seen in the alternative media either. Some of this stuff gets lost and forgotten, hidden away in musty academic books that few people, besides other academics, read.
Apparently, bharford wasn’t all that interested in what I had to share. He didn’t approve most of my comments, specifically the ones that included data that disproved or challenged the claims he was making, but unlike me he probably isn’t going to retract claims just because the issue is more complicated than he realized. So, I’ll just have to post some of the comments here instead, as seen below. I’ll also include the one comment he directed toward me and my response.
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Data does show that poor whites are more likely to own a house than poor blacks. Those houses in many cases are inherited along with land. People forget that many blacks used to own houses. A lot of their inherited wealth was loss. When blacks were driven out of communities and entire areas, there homes and property was either stolen or destroyed. This happened over many generations.
Whites, on the other hand, experienced generations of white affirmative action. Read Ira Katznelson’s book for the details.
Because of this history, poor whites are less likely to be highly concentrated in poverty and more likely to live near wealthier whites. Economic mobility is easier for whites, because that don’t have the added burden of racial biases in housing, employment, and incarceration. White privilege has been immense over this past century.
It’s easy to forget that Jim Crow, sundown towns, redlining, etc all happened within living memory. It wasn’t that long ago. Some blacks who voted for Obama spent the first part of their life not even having the right to vote.
Even worse, poor minority areas are more heavily polluted because bypasses and toxic dumps are more likely to be located there. This is called environmental racism and it has massive consequences.
Poor blacks have higher rates of lead toxicity than even poor whites, and the damage is hard to imagine on the level of entire communities. Lead toxicity increases rates of violent crime, aggressive behavior, impaired impulse control, ADHD, stunted brain development, cognitive impairment, lowered IQ, etc. That doesn’t even include all the other diseases caused or contributed to by heavy metal exposure. Entire populations of poor minorities are systematically poisoned.
In so many ways, black poverty is far worse than white poverty. Most poor whites have no idea how bad poverty can be.
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“So, in the case of Appalachians, the proper test of their racial privilege (or lack thereof) would be to compare whites in the region with blacks in the same region and to then ask, do whites have an advantage or privileges relative to their regional counterparts of color? That most people aren’t even aware of the existence of blacks in Appalachia (though they comprise about 6 percent of the region’s population, and are among some of the poorest) seems a pretty good answer to that question. That whites are the ones we instantly think of when we think of Appalachian poverty, and the ones for whom we typically then express such great sympathy, seems to indicate a very substantial kind of privileging; a kind that erases from our consciousness altogether, the problem of rural black poverty as though it were a non-factor.
“And indeed there is far more sympathy expressed for the white poor, historically and today, than for the black and brown poor: another form of implicit preference for, and privileging of, whiteness. Now that the economy is imploding, one can hear concern expressed about the poor (especially the once middle-class poor, mostly constructed as white), and how terrible it is that they are now facing such hardships. Yet when those same hardships were being experienced by the urban black and brown (whose communities have been in a recession or even depression state for entire generations in some cases) little sympathy attached. Indeed, as Martin Gilens explained in his book Why Americans Hate Welfare, as the media imagery of the poor began to shift in the early 1970s, from mostly white and rural to mostly black and urban, public animosity towards the impoverished rose in lockstep. As contrasted with the mostly sympathy-filled portrayals of the Dust Bowl poor in the 30s, or the white families that were losing their farms in the 80s, black families suffering under the combined forces of the decline in city-based manufacturing employment, as well as racism, redlining by banks and neglect of urban school infrastructure, were viewed as responsible for their own plight.
“The simple truth is, working people are not all in the same boat, and white working class folks have real advantages. Black and Latino workers are typically the first fired in an economic downturn, and remain twice as likely to be unemployed and 3-4 times as likely to be poor, in good times or bad; and white high school dropouts are twice as likely to find work as similarly uneducated African Americans.
“Furthermore, according to Thomas Shapiro’s groundbreaking work on the racial wealth divide, whites in the bottom fifth of all white households (in terms of income) have, on average seven times the net worth of similar blacks. In large part this is due to a major advantage in home ownership and thus equity, due to passed down property from parents. Indeed, whites with incomes below $13,000 are more likely to own their own homes than blacks with incomes that are three times higher, largely due to these intergenerational transfers of wealth.”
Blacks have a Net LOSS when it comes to bank savings.
So for the poorest whites to have 7xs that saved, is not that far fetched. Owning a trailer may not be sexy but it beomces an asset and a place to call home.
The J EW author Thomas Shapiro glosses over that fact. If we cant trust J EWs to be honest reporters about race and racial matters, who can we trust? Oy vey.
The only advantages poor whites have is common sense and resiliency, as well as a certain country resourcefulness.
They get interest laden student loans for life- like the rest of the whites, while minorities get free paid for grants, they have no quota they can fill to see their admittance into college, though black colleges are still wide open and accepting students, and whites will get passed over at job employment time by less qualified minorities via Affirmative Action in the working world-corporate or municipal.
It’s unsurprising that blacks have a net loss of bank savings when they also have a net loss of earnings. Blacks with a college degree on average earn less than whites with a high school diploma.
Research shows that equally or less qualified whites are more likely to get both an interview and get hired than blacks. This kind of racial bias exists even when comparing just white-sounding names and black-sounding names, before an interview or any personal meeting has occurred. This is also true when the white has a criminal record and the black has no criminal record.
Just imagine what the chances are for a black with a criminal record. Also, consider the fact that blacks are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and hence have a criminal record for many crimes that whites commit at higher rates.
Studies have shown these kind of racial biases are found in diverse areas all across our society. This isn’t just something from the past. It continues to this day.
For these reasons, the average poor black person is far more poor than the average poor white person. Also, poor blacks are more likely to be economically segregated in poor communities and neighborhoods, because of a history of sundown towns, redlining, racially biased housing loans, etc. Poor whites, on the other hand, are more likely to live in wealthier communities. Unsurprisingly, poor blacks have lower economic mobility than poor whites, which means they are more likely to be trapped in poverty across generations.
My family is white and they came from poverty. But because of their whiteness it was much easier for my family to move up in the world. My grandparents didn’t have much education at all and yet were able to get good jobs with life-long job security, high pay, and benefits. My mother then went to college and graduated owing no money. This was common for white people, even poor white people, in the past. Ira Katznelson explains why this was so in her book, When Affirmative Action Was White.
The ability to move out of poverty or at least to move out of poor areas makes a major difference in life outcomes, including health outcomes. The stress of poverty, especially concentrated poverty, takes a large toll on people. This is true for whites as well as blacks, but of course blacks experience poverty too a disproportinate degree.
An example of this is lead toxitiy. Bypasses and toxic dumps have mostly been located in poor minority areas. This caused these areas to have more lead and other heavy metal pollution. Data shows that the poor have higher rates of lead toxicity than the wealthier, minorities higher rates than whites, and poor minorities higher rates than poor whites. Blacks even have higher rates of lead toxicity than Hispanics. This is largely to do with blacks being disproportionately urbanized, in particular during the era when lead pollution skyrocketed, an era also when whites fled the big cities for the suburbs and so avoided the worst lead exposure. Poor whites are more rural and so didn’t have to deal as much with such problems. However, back when lead pollution was initially a rural problem, whites did have high rates of violent crime.
Lead toxicity is nothing to dismiss. It impacts different populations to varying degrees, but few populations escape its negative effects entirely because pollution has become so widespread. Heavy metal toxicty is known to cause and contribute to all kinds of health, neurological, behavioral, and social problems. If you are a bigot who hates all non-whites, you should still care about this issue.
As history has proven again and again, these aren’t just non-white problems. All populations that have experienced these kinds of conditions have shown the similar or even worst rates for these kinds of issues. Violent crime among blacks today, for example, is small compared to violent rates for whites in the past. Similar changes have been seen with IQ rates, as the average black today is far higher IQ than the average white was when the first tests were done.
To my mind, these improvements found in all populations are to be praised. We should try to understand the causes so as to create further improvements. Even white supremacists should be excited to know that poor whites are doing so much better today than was seen in the 1800s and early 1900s. The violent crime rates of whites in the past, not just the poor, were mind-blowingly high. That proves the power of changing environmental conditions. No population, no matter how bad off, is forever fated to suffering and struggle.
Everyone should be able to agree that is a good thing.
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Since your focus is on poor white Appalachia, there is no way that McDowell County, West Virginia should be ignored. According to the 2010 census, the population was barely above 22,000, about 89% non-Hispanic white. It is the southernmost county in state, one of the core counties of Appalachia, and one of the main focuses of the national War On Poverty,
West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country (listed at the bottom with largely black states like Arkansas and Mississippi). And McDowell is one of the poorest counties in the country. McDowell County is so severely poor that it doesn’t even need to worry about economic inequality. The vast majority of people with any money or prospects of making money moved away. All those who remain are mostly the poorest of the poor. Also problematic, the state has one of the highest economic inequalities in the country, an economic inequality that is at a historic high and still growing. The former residents with money may be now living in nearby counties not far away. It’s economic segregation by default.
The violence and crime numbers are surprisingly high for such a small town and they’ve been rising. It’s even worse when put in context of per capita rates. West Virginia overall has higher violence and crime rates than the national average, and McDowell has higher rates than both the national and state averages. The rates are higher for murder, suicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, etc. That barely scratches the surface of the social problems involved.
“State figures show that nearly a third of West Virginia’s public school students were truant during the 2013-2014 academic year.
“According to Department of Education data, 58 percent of McDowell County’s students were marked as truant. That was the highest rate in the state. Jefferson County had the lowest rate, 7 percent. The statewide rate was about 31 percent.”
“Between 2001 and 2007 there were 1,442 total crimes reported in Mcdowell County, West Virginia (174 of them violent). Of the 206 crimes that transpire each year in Mcdowell County, just about one half take place less than a mile from home. On average, someone is a victim of a crime in Mcdowell County, West Virginia 206 times a year. This includes 4 murders, 1 rape, and close to nine hundred thefts (including 99 automobile thefts).
“Throughout the last 10 years, crime data were available in Mcdowell County, West Virginia for 7 years. Over that period of time, reported crime in Mcdowell County has climbed by 37 per-cent. In the course of that same period, violent crime rose by 52 per-cent. Taken as a whole, the crime rates are a sign of a rapid worsening in crime over these years in Mcdowell County.”
“Williamson, a town of about 3,200, sits along the Tug Fork River in a part of the state long associated with violence. Mingo and neighboring McDowell County are home to the legendary blood feud between the Hatfield family of West Virginia and the McCoy family of Kentucky, a conflict dating to the Civil War.
“Crum’s county was dubbed “Bloody Mingo” during the early 20th century mine wars, when unionizing miners battled Baldwin-Felts security agents hired by the coal operators.
“In May 1920, after evicting striking miners in Red Jacket, some of the Baldwin-Felts men tried to board a train in nearby Matewan but were confronted by the mayor and the chief of police, Sid Hatfield, a former miner, who had family ties to the Hatfields in the feud.
“After a gun battle recreated in the 1987 John Sayles film “Matewan,” the mayor, two miners, a bystander and three agents lay dead. Hatfield became a hero but was gunned down on the courthouse steps a year later in Matewan.”
“In the 1980s the central Appalachian region lost more than 70,000 coal mining jobs. Between 1981 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the United Mine Workers union, coal mining employment in the state of West Virginia decreased by more than 53%. No county in the Appalachian region was more severely distressed by these losses than McDowell County. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1980, the rate of poverty in McDowell County was 23.5%.
“By 1990, the poverty rate in McDowell County had climbed to 37.7%, the highest rate of poverty for any county in West Virginia. 50.3% of all children in McDowell County were living in families below the poverty level, up from 31.2% in 1980. The major losses in McDowell County during this period were the result of the closing of all mines and facilities operated by the United States Steel Corporation, terminating more than 1,200 jobs.
“The economic impact of U.S. Steel’s departure was particularly dramatic: personal income in the county decreased by 66% in one year. Housing values in even the most prosperous parts of the county plunged to devastatingly low values. Individuals and families who wanted to relocate outside the county were left with little or no equity in their property. Many walked away from their mortgages and simply abandoned their homes to the lenders.
“Marijuana crops, drug traffic, fraud, arson, and in one spectacular case at the Bank of Keystone—major white collar crime and embezzlement became factors in the unofficial economy of McDowell. County officials also reported significant increases in the rates of domestic abuse, suicide, and OxyContin abuse.
“By 2001 suffering major losses of tax revenue, McDowell County public schools had fallen into physical decay and high rates of academic failure. Enrollments declined, more than half of the children lived in poverty. […]
“The median income for a household in the county was $21,574, and the median income for a family was $27,605. Men had a median income of $25,994 versus $18,685 for Women. The per capita income for the county was $12,004. About 29.1% of families and 34.5% of the population were below the poverty line, including 43.4% of those under age 18 and 23.3% of those age 65 or over.
“In 2013, press reports indicated that the average lifespan of a man in McDowell County was 63.9 years, compared to a national average of 76.3. This was the shortest lifespan for men in the country. Women in the county could expect to live 72.9 years; the national figure is 80.9. This was the second-worst number in the United States, with only Perry County, Kentucky doing worse.”
“Those WHO figures for the U.S. take into account the country as a whole, and overall, Americans clearly aren’t living as long as Europeans. But the news becomes even more troubling when one examines a report that the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington released in July 2013. That study broke down life expectancy for men and women in different parts of the U.S., showing a strong correlation between income levels and longevity. The report found that life expectancy is 81.6 for males and 84.5 for females in Fairfax County, Virginia (a very affluent area) and 81.4 for males and 85.0 for females in Marin County, California (another upscale area) compared to only 63.9 for males and 72.9 for females in McDowell County, West Virginia or 66.7 for males and 73.3 for females in Tunica County, Mississippi.
“The fact that males in McDowell County are, on average, dying 18 years younger than males in Fairfax County or Marin County speaks volumes about inequality in the U.S. That type of disparity is more typical of a developing country than a developed country. Yet when one compares life expectancy in McDowell County to life expectancy in Guatemala, one of Latin America’s poorest countries, Guatemalans come out slightly ahead. WHO has reported an overall life expectancy of 69 for Guatemala (66 for men, 73 for women).
“So in other words, the poor in Guatemala are outliving the poor in McDowell County. In fact, McDowell County is only slightly ahead of Haiti, Ghana and Papua New Guinea when it comes to life expectancy for males: according to WHO, life expectancy for males is 62 in those three countries.”
“About half of those living in McDowell County depend on some kind of relief check such as Social Security, Disability, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, retirement benefits, and unemployment to survive. They live on the margins, check to check, expecting no improvement in their lives and seeing none. The most common billboards along the roads are for law firms that file disability claims and seek state and federal payments. “Disability and Injury Lawyers,” reads one. It promises to handle “Social Security. Car Wrecks. Veterans. Workers’ Comp.” The 800 number ends in COMP.
“Harry M. Caudill, in his monumental 1963 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, describes how relief checks became a kind of bribe for the rural poor in Appalachia. The decimated region was the pilot project for outside government assistance, which had issued the first food stamps in 1961 to a household of fifteen in Paynesville, West Virginia. “Welfarism” began to be practiced, as Caudill wrote, “on a scale unequalled elsewhere in America and scarcely surpassed anywhere in the world.” Government “handouts,” he observed, were “speedily recognized as a lode from which dollars could be mined more easily than from any coal seam.”
“Obtaining the monthly “handout” became an art form. People were reduced to what Caudill called “the tragic status of ‘symptom hunters.’ If they could find enough symptoms of illness, they might convince the physicians they were ‘sick enough to draw’… to indicate such a disability as incapacitating the men from working. Then his children, as public charges, could draw enough money to feed the family.””
“McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, has been emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century. John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960 and was so appalled that he promised to send help if elected president. His first executive order created the modern food stamp program, whose first recipients were McDowell County residents. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, it was the squalor of Appalachia he had in mind. The federal programs that followed — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living.
“But a half-century later, with the poverty rate again on the rise, hardship seems merely to have taken on a new face in McDowell County. The economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment. […]
“Much of McDowell County looks like a rural Detroit, with broken windows on shuttered businesses and homes crumbling from neglect. In many places, little seems to have been built or maintained in decades.
“Numbers tell the tale as vividly as the scarred landscape. Forty-six percent of children in the county do not live with a biological parent, according to the school district. Their mothers and fathers are in jail, are dead or have left them to be raised by relatives, said Gordon Lambert, president of the McDowell County Commission.
“Beginning in the 19th century, the rugged region produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia, but it got almost none of the wealth back as local investment. Of West Virginia’s 55 counties, McDowell has the lowest median household income, $22,000; the worst childhood obesity rate; and the highest teenage birthrate.
“It is also reeling from prescription drug abuse. The death rate from overdoses is more than eight times the national average. Of the 115 babies born in 2011 at Welch Community Hospital, over 40 had been exposed to drugs.
“Largely as a consequence of the drug scourge, a problem widespread in rural America, the incarceration rate in West Virginia is one of the highest in the country.
““Whole families have been wiped out in this county: mother, father, children,” said Sheriff Martin B. West.
““These are good people, good families,” Sheriff West, an evangelical pastor, said of his lifelong neighbors. “But they get involved with drugs, and the next thing you know they’re getting arrested.” […]
“Many in McDowell County acknowledge that depending on government benefits has become a way of life, passed from generation to generation. Nearly 47 percent of personal income in the county is from Social Security, disability insurance, food stamps and other federal programs.
“But residents also identify a more insidious cause of the current social unraveling: the disappearance of the only good jobs they ever knew, in coal mining. The county was always poor. Yet family breakup did not become a calamity until the 1990s, after southern West Virginia lost its major mines in the downturn of the American steel industry. The poverty rate, 50 percent in 1960, declined — partly as a result of federal benefits — to 36 percent in 1970 and to 23.5 percent in 1980. But it soared to nearly 38 percent in 1990. For families with children, it now nears 41 percent.
“Today, fewer than one in three McDowell County residents are in the labor force. The chief effort to diversify the economy has been building prisons. The most impressive structure on Route 52, the twisting highway into Welch, is a state prison that occupies a former hospital. There is also a new federal prison on a mountaintop. But many residents have been skipped over for the well-paying jobs in corrections: They can’t pass a drug test.”
“The details are harrowing. Fourty-six percent of children in the county don’t live with a biological parent. The death rate from drug overdose is over eight times the national average. The incarceration rate is among the highest in the U.S.
“In the 1950’s, 100,000 people called McDowell County home. In 2014, that number has plummeted to 21,300, and the county is populated only by those who can’t leave due to lack of education or skills, or have family connections that keep them rooted in the area.
“With the disappearance of coal mining jobs, many families now rely on Social Security, food stamps, and disability payments. Dependence on government money has become “a way of life, passed from generation to generation.” Fewer than one out of three participates in the labor force (works, or is looking for work)–a figure that compares poorly to the national labor participation rate of 63.2% (as of March 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
“McDowell County is aware of their detachment from the rest of the country, and places a large importance on staying loyal to “us,” as opposed to “them.” Fifteen-year-old Emalee sees the possibility of pursuing a college education in her future, but her family doesn’t want her to go. Says Florisha McGuire of leaving her small West Virginian town to attend college: “you’d think I’d committed a crime.”
“There are so many factors that we could blame for the destitution of McDowell County. There’s the extensive dependence on welfare that disincentives productive work. There’s the economic shift that caused the disappearance of coal mining jobs. There’s pervasive drug use that puts otherwise good people in jail, separating parents from children and citizens from society. There’s the lack of hope for betterment in the future that discourages seeking out opportunity elsewhere.
“The truth is, all of these variables interact with and feed upon each other. Perhaps the one sure lesson that we can take away is that poverty, at its core, is not just a money issue–it’s a community issue.”
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Why didn’t you approve my comments? In multiple unapproved comments, I offered quotes, data, and analysis from different perspectives. Don’t you want to have a discussion about what all this means? Aren’t you at least curious and hopefully concerned about what causes social problems, no matter what race or ethnicity is involved?
I’m sympathetic to poor whites. My mother came from lower working class people from what some call Kentuckiana, and it just occurred to me that several generations before her the family actually was living in Appalachia. She spoke with a Southern Hoosier dialect when she was younger, and when I visit her family I can still hear some of them speak that way. I don’t have to go back very far in my family history to find severe poverty. I’ve lived below the poverty line myself at one point in my life. The people you describe are what I consider my people.
If you really cared about these people, you’d dig much deeper in trying to understand and you wouldn’t create a stereotyped caricature that dismisses the harsh reality of poverty. And as a professed Christian (going by your About page), you should care. A good place to start is by getting an insider’s perspective. I’d suggest Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus (or you could check out his memoir, Rainbow Pie). Bageant doesn’t pull his punches and he most certainly cares as he writes about the people he grew up with. He was born and raised as a dirt poor Appalachian among the too often forgotten white underclass.
There is a lot more going on in this region and in these communities. The history alone is fascinating and times heartbreaking. Appalachia and the larger region isn’t even just about whites. Many areas that are majority white today had large black populations in the past, prior to Jim Crow, the KKK, and redlining. Even so, many blacks remain in these rural areas, especially in the South, but also in Appalachia.
Poverty is not a race issue. Rural blacks are basically the same as rural whites in rates of social problems, although rural blacks are less likely to commit suicide. The same goes for comparing inner city blacks and inner city whites. Back when most blacks were rural, they had strong communities and high marriage rates; and at least in some places (e.g., rural Louisiana) blacks committed less violent crime than did whites, both intraracial and interracial. Inner cities are a very different kind of place, but it’s been hard for blacks to escape those conditions. It’s similar to why poor Appalachians get stuck in poor communities, long after the employment dried up. Inner cities also at one time had high employment rates for blacks. Loss of factories in inner cities had the same basic impact as loss of mining in Appalachia.
That said, I agree with you that Appalachia is an interesting case to consider. It has poverty, no doubt about that. But I’d love to know more details. How severe is that poverty compared to the poorest communities and neighborhoods in the US? How concentrated is the poverty there? Research has found that concentrated severe poverty is, of course, far worse than sparse moderate poverty. Hence, the social problems vary greatly according to the specific type and conditions of poverty.
I know Appalachia and the Upper South. It’s a different kind of place. Kentucky has had great decreases in violent crime, but Tennessee for some reason hasn’t seen as much improvement. Both states have histories of violent populations. Tennessee remains one of the most violent states in the country, even to the extent of sometimes making it to the top of the list. Kentucky diverged from its sister state, Tennessee. I don’t know why that is. I’ve traveled around Kentucky and it truly seems like a border state, with similarities both to the Midwest and to the South. The Midwestern states also tend to have lower violent crime rates.
But there was something I noticed in Kentucky that I haven’t seen too many other places. If you drive down rural back roads, you’ll find shacks and old houses that are nearly falling down and yet sometimes nearby will be a well-kept mansion. It’s the strangest thing, especially from my Midwestern perspective. The extremes of poverty and wealth are often right next to one another, at least in rural areas.
I saw a similar phenomenon in South Carolina. My family lived in Columbia. There was a main road that headed into downtown. On one side of the road, there was a poor mostly black neighborhood (along with some Projects) and on the other side of the road was a wealthy mostly white neighborhood. There was no massive wall dividing the two worlds, just the road.
That kind of thing simply does not exist in Iowa. Ignoring the contrast to Iowa, I wanted to note some differences between the two examples above.
The South Carolina example was of concentrated poverty and concentrated wealth, even though they were right next to each other. If you looked at the county level data, you wouldn’t be able to see this concentration, but it was obvious just by driving down that road.
That kind of concentrated urban poverty, whether or not next to concentrated wealth, tends to lead to all kinds of social problems. This has been demonstrated in numerous examples throughout American history, in terms of diverse races and ethnicities. When Italians, Irish, and Jews lived in urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, they saw similar social problems as seen today: violent crime, family breakdown, low education achievement, job insecurity, alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, etc.
Rural poverty may be less of a problem in some ways. It is spread out more, but that just means the problems are spread out more. Are the social problems less worse or less obvious?
I bet that interesting patterns would be seen in Appalachia if you were to break down the different areas. I’m specifically thinking of urban vs rural and concentrated poverty vs mixed class residences, but also other distinctions as well. The results might not fit what many would expect.
I’ll give some examples that shows how complicated it can be.
How the data is divided determines the conclusion that is made. According to how the data is normally divided, US rural areas on average are safer than US urban areas on average. But this is mixing up a whole lot of factors and averaging out across great diversity. Some urban areas are extremely safe. Many of the biggest cities, for example, have below average violence and crime rates, maybe because of more police presence or other reasons. Also, both inner cities and suburbs both share the trait of not being rural, but otherwise they are quite distinct.
The data can be divided up in other ways. By rural, what most researchers have meant is all small and/or sparsely populated areas. This has most often included small towns, even though one would think of a small town being an urban area, albeit a small urban area.
There was one study I came across that didn’t include small towns as part of rural areas and so entirely separated out sparsely populated rural areas, which is what many people think of when rural is mentioned. This study made three categories for analysis: rural areas, small towns, and big cities. The results showed the small towns were the safest of all for violent crime, although they had high rates of other crimes such as vandalism and larceny. Most interesting of all, is that divided up this way rural areas proved to have higher violent crime rates than even big cities. When people say rural areas are safer, what they really mean is that small towns are safer.
You also see differences according to regions. Compare the Midwest and the South. Both have high rates of gun ownership. Yet the Midwest has lower rates of gun violence and and the South has higher rates of gun violence. I know, for example, in the rural South that you are more likely to be killed by someone you know. There was a recent study that showed increasing gun ownership rates doesn’t correlate to increasing stranger gun homicides but it does correlate to increasing non-stranger gun homicides. That correlation, however, might also show great disparity between regions.
By the way, I don’t know if Appalachia is on average more similar to the Midwest or the South. Even though the Southern section of Appalachia is in the South, the northern part is in the Midwest. There might be great differences when looking at different areas of Appalachia.
It does make me wonder. I know that the South in general has higher rates of a wide variety of social problems, such as rates of teen pregnancy and high school drop outs. These social problems are mostly found among poor Southerners, both black and white. The South also has high rates of poverty and economic inequality which is always found anywhere there are social problems. Maybe Appalachia needs to be considered separately. The conditions of Appalachia might be different than other areas.
After writing the above, I came across a list of the top 50 most dangerous counties in America, based on 2012 data:
It’s an imperfect list because the data is limited, but it still is interesting. A significant number of counties on this list are in or near Appalachia. I didn’t compare this list to that of the poorest counties in America. I bet some of the same counties would be found on both lists. For certain, I doubt many, if any, of the most dangerous counties are places of low poverty rates.
I was looking back through your post. I realized that you didn’t actually offer much in the way of data. You mostly just shared photographs and made many unsubstantiated claims. One piece of data you did share caught my attention:
“Yet, The violent crime rate for Appalachia in 2010 was lower than the national violent crime rate average by 56.76%”
You followed that with a map that showed economic by county in Appalachia. It made me realize that you weren’t clear in what point you were making. Appalachia includes many prosperous counties as well as poor. The poorest counties also probably are the least populated and so probably have the least amount of concentrated poverty, which makes a massive difference as research shows. Most Appalachians probably live in the prosperous counties because that is where most of the work is located. Nothing you said offers clear insight about the average Appalachian.
In Appalachia, the poverty rates and average income levels differ greatly. depending on the state:
Talking about Appalachia is somewhat arbitrary. It not only crosses several state boundaries but also stretches between three different regions: Deep South, Upper South, and Midwest. Those states and those regions are very different kinds of places with different demographics, different economies, and different governments.
A similar problem exists in talking about the Midwest, something I’m more familiar with. The Lower South and Upper South might as well be considered separately. The lower edge of the Lower Midwest is culturally more Southern. The same difficult goes for the Eastern Midwest and Western Midwest. I live in Iowa, which is on the other side of the Mississippi and has no big cities. Iowa is quite different from the Midwestern Rust Belt.
I don’t mean to say that it is pointless to discuss generalizations about vast regions, whether Appalachia or Midwest. It’s just that one should be very careful and pay close attention to the details.
I’d say the same thing about even larger generalized categories such as all poor whites. Some poor whites are more severely poor than others. Some are only temporarily poor while some populations are intergenerationally poor. Some exhibit higher rates of social problems, but not all do. Many demographics considered as white today weren’t in the past. The crime data used to keep the numbers separate for not just races but all major ethnicities. A century or so ago, Italians, Irish, and Jews had high rates of crimes that went along with high rates of concentrated poverty.
Even some of the same whites show diverse rates of problems over time. Appalachia still does have plenty of violence, but it is worth noting that is far lower than it used to be. As far as that goes, all violent crime is lower in the US than it used to be and it is dropping the most quickly among minorities, for whatever reason. It likely has to do with changing environmental conditions, such as decreased heavy metal pollution.
Also, what about people who move. Many Appalachians in the past have since moved to other places. Where did they go? Did they simply assimilate into other populations? Even limiting ourselves to Appalachia, how has the population shifted around and which counties have the most population now? What are the poverty and violent crime rates like in the most populous Appalachian counties where most Appalachians live?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. You didn’t even think to ask them. If you really want to understand any of this, your post and the discussion in the comments has barely scratched the surface. Don’t these unanswered questions make you curious?
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Crime and Policing in Rural and Small-Town America: Third Edition
by Ralph A. Weisheit, David N. Falcone, L. Edward Well
“Informal social control, keeping things in, and showing a greater suspicion of government may also help account for rural-urban differences in the willingness of local communities to cooperate fully with reporting to the FBI’s UCR. Reporting to the CR program in 2003 differed by population density, with reports covering 95% of citizens living in metropolitan statistical areas but only 83% of those living in rural areas (FBI, 2003). Similarly, Laub (1981) has found that while the overall likelihood of reporting crime to the police is similar for rural and urban citizens, those in urban areas fail to report because they think nothing can be done, while those in rural areas fail to report because they consider the crime a private concern, even when the offender is a stranger. As a New Mexico state police officer observed: “In a lot of these [rural] areas, there’s really no law enforcement—no police, no sheriff, no state police station. People prefer to handle their own affairs and disputes themselves” (Applebombe, 1987, p. 11). The officer’s comment should be taken as more figurative than literal, although there are remote areas of Alaska where the statement could be taken literally. The statement does reflect two dimensions of the issue that are distinct but tend to reinforce each other. First, rural citizens may less often to choose to deal with a problem formally because they see it as a local problem. Second, in some rural areas formal police authority is in fact physically distant and is not an immediate option.”
“Kenneth Wilkinson (1984) also used county-level data but came to a very different conclusion. In contrast to other data, he found that homicide rates were higher in rural areas. He accounted for this by noting that in a geographically dispersed population, social interactions occur more frequently among family members and close acquaintances; both are groups at a relatively higher risk for homicide. Wilkinson also observed that when compared with large cities, homicide rates were higher in rural areas but lower in small cities. Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of crime-specific analyses and of using care in defining the term rural. Simply treating everything outside of major metropolitan areas as rural can mask important patterns.”
“Finally, official police data provided in the UCR also reveal some offenses for which the rates are higher in small towns and rural areas than for large cities… [R]ural counties are much higher than large cities in the arrest rate for DUI and for crimes against family members and children. This last finding conflicts with field research and some survey research that suggests that family violence rates are similar across rural and urban areas and that police in rural areas are more hesitant to respond to family violence… [S]mall towns are higher than either large cities or the most rural areas in arrest rates for fraud and vandalism. In small towns and rural areas arrest rates for fraud are about four times greater than in the largest cities. Curiously, arrest rates for vandalism are lowest in the most rural areas and highest in small towns, with city rates falling in between.”
“In short, lead paint simply wasn’t available in most rural areas before the 1880s except in very narrow corridors with good transportation. You can see this in the prevalence of white barns along the National Road. Then, starting in the 1880s, revolutions in both rail transport and mail order distribution made economical lead paint available almost everywhere—including rural areas. A couple of decades later, homicide rates had skyrocketed in rural areas and had nearly caught up to urban murder rates.
“By itself, of course, this would be merely speculative. What makes it more than this is that it adds to the wealth of other evidence that lead exposure in childhood leads to increased violence in adulthood. In the post-World War II era, lead exposure came mainly from automobile exhausts, but in the post-Civil War era it came mainly from the growth in the use of lead paint. And when lead paint became available in rural areas, farmers found it just as useful as everyone else. Given what we now know about the effects of lead, it should come as no surprise that a couple of decades later the murder rate in rural areas went up substantially.”
by Randolph Roth
Kindle Locations 222-225
“Race and slavery are connected to America’s homicide problem, but not in a straightforward way. Before the 1890s, for example, African Americans were far less likely to kill than whites were, and especially unlikely to kill one another. Why, for the past century, has the opposite been the case? Why were Virginia and Maryland no more homicidal than Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 1730s, when they had more slaves and free blacks? Why did slave states become more homicidal after the Revolution, when free states became less homicidal?”
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Here are two bonus articles:
The Violence Bred By Poverty Whether In Poorest Appalachia Or Poorest Philadelphia, Joblessness And Desperation Can Bring A Whole New Way Of Living – And Dying.
by Jeffrey Fleishman and Karl Stark, phily.com
Ferguson, like Appalachia, suffers from social and economic inequality
by Kieren Weisert