Ask ‘How Can Appalachia Get Better?’ and Not ‘Why Is It Poor?’

The question of why poverty is so persistent in Appalachia is popular because it’s not just an economic one—it touches on economics, psychology, political science, and sociology.

Expatalachians has previously covered why Appalachia is poor, and Nicholas Brumfield gives readers a useful overview of competing theories that try to answer the question. To get a better handle on the challenges in the region, one more explanation needs to be added: How geography shapes regions.

In one sense, the greatest problem Appalachia has is its geography. 

Mountainous, removed from the coast, and with few large cities to power the regional economy, the region’s mountains have historically helped it resist centralization from state or national capitals. While that protection has preserved a distinct culture and way of life, it also means Appalachia has less influence in those capitals. Its river ports make it an area ripe for its coal, oil, and natural gas to be shipped out without building up cities. Northern Appalachia was rich in industrialization, but its small cities struggled to diversify after factories closed. Decades later, they’re still trying to find the path to revival. River valleys have a legacy of stately houses and past glory, hills have (former) coal communities and environmental hazards. Turning the region into an economic powerhouse or a political kingmaker is a difficult task.

“Geography informs, rather than determines. It is not synonymous with fatalism,” wrote Robert Kaplan, the American foreign affairs writer. “But it is, like the distribution of economic and military power themselves, a major constraint on—and instigator of—the actions of states.” For example, low-population areas with few cities and little political clout, historically, do not become the richest parts of a country. 

That does not mean Appalachia must be a backwater, stuck with generational poverty and little opportunity. It simply means that expecting the region to pile up bricks of gold, like Silicon Valley or booming Southern cities, is a bad comparison to make. Economic comparisons in Appalachia should be tied to places that are similar to it. Don’t compare Appalachia to Boston or Seattle; instead, compare Pittsburgh to Raleigh, or rural counties to other rural counties.

Inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Don Sniegowski. Via Wikimedia.

Northern and southern West Virginia face different problems from northern Georgia or central Pennsylvania. Problems outside the mountainous parts of Appalachia may be closer to problems in the Rust Belt, of declining industry with nothing to replace it. Paying attention to local history and geography is key to understanding poverty in Appalachia. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. There are “local complexities of every situation,” as Kaplan noted.

The right comparisons matter because rural areas will not have the wealth of urban areas. “Convergence,” where regions become equally rich, is a questionable concept. Appalachia will never be as rich as the New York City metro area unless New York gets destroyed in a war. The more interesting question, with the right comparison, becomes “what are similar places doing right that Appalachia can learn from?”

With that framing, questions dwell less on zero-sum thinking and more on how the future can be better. Bemoaning problems of the past can turn into fatalism and resignation that encourages learned helplessness instead of purposeful action. Instead of theories focusing on Appalachia as an internal colony or mired in a culture of poverty, seeing Appalachia’s problems as geographical problems provide a framework to change the future.

For instance, it’s important to note health disparities in the region, but important changes aren’t out of reach. More can be done to promote telehealth, as the pandemic has shown. Allowing nurses and other health workers to run small clinics without a full-time doctor on site could also improve health access in the region. People in rural towns will never have easy access to health care like people in large cities do, but changing the law so more small medical offices can pop up could cut down a drive from 50 minutes to 25 minutes and improve the quality of life for many.

The federal government could do more, too, without necessarily throwing money at unsolvable problems and calling it “progress.” They could offer more visas to foreign doctors who agree to work in rural areas. Rural Appalachians would get better health care access, and workers interested in health care could get experience working under them. 

Mine reclamation, too, could restore parts of the Appalachian environment harmed by resource extraction. The federal government has the responsibility for cleaning up these sites, and it should be done, even if they don’t generate the economic development hoped for. A former coalfield might not become an economic anchor, but a clean environment and conservation has its own value.

Appalachia’s geography and history mean that it will struggle to dictate national politics. The region is politically fractured, spread over 420 counties in 13 states, and often overlooked in those states. The demands of other regions have more political influence because the political payoff is greater. Sure, the Appalachian Regional Commission might get $165 million annually, but it will get few favors from the federal government (even though West Virginia’s Senator, Joe Manchin, is in the catbird seat at the moment). 

Rather than casting the blame on “late capitalism” or lazy people, put away the political map of Appalachia and take a look at a physical map. With a geographical understanding, discussions and analyses can focus more on how Appalachia can get better, rather than why it is worse than other places.

Subscribe to The Patch, our newsletter, to stay up-to-date with new expatalachians articles and news from around Appalachia.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Liked it? Take a second to support Anthony Hennen on Patreon!