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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Cycle of Poverty in Appalachia Continues

“Today, less privileged white Americans are considered to be in crisis.”

According to “The Original Underclass,” an article published in The Atlantic in September 2016, the number of out-of-wedlock births and unemployed males have increased dramatically. Along with reports of high rates of opiate addiction and rising mortality rates, working class white people in America seem to be in trouble.

In the 1950s, the white working class prospered from performing physical labor post-World War II. Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance explains that his grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio in pursuit of more opportunities. They escaped the poor conditions of Kentucky and raised a middle class family in Ohio, like many families did at the time.

This opportunity for so many following the war would not last forever.

The hope of achieving permanent upward mobility was not as easy as it seemed to be in previous years. The areas that people moved to after World War II, like the Rust Belt, stopped showing great opportunity. J.D. Vance tells the story of the diminishing idea of the American Dream within his memoir.

The Rust Belt region. CC Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Working class Americans in the Appalachia region, where J.D. Vance spent time growing up, are especially struggling. Appalachian residents now find it very hard to break their cycle of ongoing poverty.

“I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class,” Vance writes. “And we hill people aren’t doing very well.”

Although Vance managed to escape this detrimental cycle with the help of his grandmother, it is extremely hard for most to find resources to succeed while living in a poor environment.

“Many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them,” Vance explained.

J.D. Vance and his half-sister, Lindsay, growing up in Ohio. CC Image Courtesy of the J.D. Vance website.

A New York Times article from 2015 reviewed a study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren which exposed a brutal truth about upward mobility: children who grow up in poor neighborhoods instead of moving to areas with more opportunities are more likely to remain low-income. These effects can last for several generations.

Overall, the study concluded that what matters in terms of upward mobility is not just the quality of one’s neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years he/she is exposed to it. The earlier they move out of poor conditions, the more likely they are to succeed.

For many who are forced to live in these sinking areas, the idea of the American Dream is diminishing. The Appalachia region consists of some of the poorest areas in the United States.

For Vance, fixing these deeply rooted issues is not going to be fixed by the government alone.

“These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else,” Vance contends. “We created them, and only we can fix them.”

 

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office