Occasionally, a breakout event attracts national attention to Appalachia. Visits by Political and economic attention came when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson focused the nation’s attention on the region in the 1960s and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy did the same in 2016. For 2019, outstanding athletic ability has caught the national eye and swung it to southeast Ohio.
Last week, Louisiana State University quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy. The Washington Post had noted his hometown support in The Plains when its reporter saw “clusters of purple and gold” sprouting up around town. Cajun Country has annexed southeast Ohio.
Burrow’s success has brought the spotlight again to the area, and he hasn’t forgotten his roots. During his acceptance speech at the Heisman ceremony, Burrow took the time to talk of where he came from:
Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. And I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.
Athens County is routinely the highest-poverty county in southeast Ohio. Appalachian Ohio has a poverty rate of 17.2 percent, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, but Athens County is much higher at 30.2 percent. The U.S. average is 14.2 percent. The number gets slightly inflated due to Ohio University’s student population, but the high poverty rate remains even after adjusting for students. The Athens News noted that almost 75 percent of students were on a free or reduced lunch program at The Plains Elementary School.
The poverty problem isn’t new, either. Looking back at poverty rates in the region in 1980, Athens County has held its position as one of the poorest counties in Ohio.
Economic growth in Ohio’s rural and urban areas have been comparable. Urban areas have seen 9.2 percent growth compared to 7.6 percent in rural areas, according to Mark Partridge, an economics professor at Ohio State University. Only a handful of states have done better. Athens County’s employment is generally driven by Ohio University, O’Bleness Hospital, Athens County government, Hocking College, Walmart, and Athens City Schools.
Some rural places Partridge mentioned, such as Athens, are “not booming, but they’re definitely hanging in there,” he noted. Without many private businesses expanding and adding jobs, Athens’ growth will lag other nearby counties that are less reliant on the public sector.
Sometimes, those areas need an extra boost. And Burrow’s Heisman speech inspired a fundraising drive for the Athens County Food Pantry.
It’s gone viral. Grateful LSU fans, Ohioans, and others have donated in droves: $300,000 has already been raised.
Will Drabold, who started the fundraiser, noted the effect of Burrow’s speech and the fundraiser at The Plains Elementary:
One of my wife’s 3rd graders came up to my wife and said, “I go to the food bank,” with her eyes beaming. She was proud to say that she did. She was proud!
This is the whole point. This is why I felt motivated to start this after watching Joey’s speech. Joey inspired a generation of children in Appalachian Ohio. Some of these kids don’t get toys for Christmas. Some get their food from the food pantry. You cannot beat the power of role models and inspiration in their lives. None of these kids, who are in the same classrooms Joey was, will ever forget this.
Burrow’s success has highlighted the strength of the area’s community. Too much lazy journalism casts Appalachia as hopeless and dependent. Even some locals who would show visitors around the area have stopped. But like many others, communities in the region respect the work and dedication of the people who live there. It sticks with the people who leave, who want to give back when they can.
Burrow has done two great things: He reached the peak of individual achievement of college football and could bring home a national championship in a few weeks, and he’s done great good for the most vulnerable in his home community.
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Anthony Hennen is a co-founder and managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.