Bridging the Poverty Gap

By Stasia FinePoverty.  It is a word that we often hear. It is also a word that many of us have become immune to. Images of brittle, thin children, grieving mothers, hands stretched out grasping for food, and men on the side of the road holding signs that read, “Will work for food,” often come to mind when we hear this word. We forget, or perhaps we don’t realize, that there are counties in our country where people have been poor for so long they no longer recognize that they are poor.  In January, I lived in a part of the United States that has been entangled in poverty for generations. It is a part of our country that has often been forgotten. And when it is remembered, it is often brought to mind by comedy sketches about hillbillies, rednecks or hicks. Yet, it is a part of the country where people are proud to identify themselves as Americans.It is here in an eastern part of Kentucky that I came during an academic immersion trip to learn more about life in Appalachia. What I found was a dichotomy of beauty and destruction, pride and shame, life and death.  The Appalachian Mountains are known for their organic beauty.  The ecology of the forests are some of the most diverse in our country.  Here we find spruce, fir, hemlock, oak and pine trees, herbal and medicinal plants, and a variety of moss and fungi. From the top of a mountain, one can look out and see miles and miles of lush green wood interrupted by stark plateaus of rock where the tops of mountains are submerged into valleys.The people of Appalachia have proudly preserved the richness of early American culture.  Here one can find the banjo in some of its earliest forms, as an Americanized version of the instrument carried over to the New World by African slaves.  Dance simultaneously remembers the stiffness of Irish immigrant clogging and the loose rhythmic movements of Africans recently released from the plantation.  Looms still click-clack, knives still whittle, and brushes still capture the beauty of the landscape. Yet it is this very preservation that adds to the marginalization of these citizens as people of the “backwoods.”Despite this, the people of Appalachia are full of life and hope.  On my trip, I met some incredible people. I met a farmer who regularly takes agriculture and economic classes to learn how to better care for his cattle and make a greater profit.  I met a woman who started her own medical center after watching several of her neighbors die from lack of access to a hospital. I learned how a woman quit her profitable judicial job in order to start a rehab center to fight the progression of Oxycotin addiction in her community. I visited a media shop that is empowering young people to tell the story of Appalachia. And I toured a motorcross body shop that is getting the attention of celebrities.But I also witnessed death: the death of trees, the destruction of important medicinal herbs, the flattening of mountains and filling of valleys, and the pollution of waterways with sludge and coal debris.  I heard about a doctor who had just been murdered because he refused to give a patient Oxycotin. I learned how Oxycotin was tearing apart families and multiplying the crime rate. I saw the economic depravity of a community that relied on the unstable coal industry for employment and realized that the majority of profits and resources produced by that industry were being sent elsewhere.  I met people who were sick and dying and who would otherwise be healthy if they had just grown up somewhere else.The causes of Appalachian poverty are very different from urban poverty. In Appalachia, children grow up in intact families and have strong family support systems.  People own the land that has been passed down to them through the generations. But life is controlled by the coal industry.  Jobs are available when the industry is doing well. When it is not, work is not available.  Most of the people who receive the highest incomes from the coal industry live in urban communities outside of Appalachia, and thus, do not contribute to the local economies. Health care is also inaccessible in Appalachia because of a lack of means to pay and a lack of local doctors and medical centers. Because of the mountainous terrain, travel is difficult, and in order to gain access to federal and state resources people often have to drive several hours.In order to respond to the needs of the people and the causes of poverty, the county and state government needs to work alongside leaders of grassroots movements and institutions to find solutions that are practical and accessible.  It is here where I believe that the incredible work of The Poverty Forum could be replicated to make a positive impact in Appalachia.For the past year and a half, The Clapham Group has been working alongside Mike Gerson (Washington Post columnist) with Jim Wallis (Sojourners) to administer The Poverty Forum. The forum is a collaborative effort among Christian policy makers to create policy that is bipartisan and helps decrease domestic poverty.  Policy makers who typically agree that poverty is an issue, but often disagree regarding the best solutions, partnered together to create 28 proposals that could be implemented by Congress.  One of these policies calls for the expansion and strengthening of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in order to eliminate the marriage penalty which interferes with families in Appalachia taking full advantage of the EITC.  Another proposal, if implemented, will make it possible for lower income individuals and families to deduct their charitable giving to local charities.Over the next few months, The Poverty Forum will be hosting meetings on Capitol Hill to discuss these policies. Our hope is that we may alleviate the heavy burden of poverty that plague our brothers and sisters in Appalachia.