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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: Appalachia

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

Heroin Crisis is Taking Lives of Many in Appalachia

“The worst part of overdosing was waking up,” claimed a West Virginia heroin user.

A recent New Yorker article follows the lives of several people in West Virginia, exposing the widespread problem of heroin usage in poorer areas of the Appalachian region.

The Appalachia region. CC Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A few of the Appalachian states consist of North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Mississippi, possessing some of the poorest regions in the country.

West Virginia, an Appalachian state, has the highest overdose death rate in the country.

What used to be a problem with largely prescribed opiate drugs has now pivoted towards a large increase in the use of heroin.

Heroin has become a cheap alternative to prescription pain medication to many people. A recent drop in the use of opioid prescription medications coincided with a spike in heroin usage.

An oxycodone pill now costs around eighty dollars, while a dose of heroin costs a mere ten.

In the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance notes several times that prescription drugs were a problem not only in his town, but in his household, with his mother being an addict. He also noted that in his town, it was understood that heroin was thought to be more dangerous than prescription medications; it was a sign of desperation.

Along with the spike in heroin usage, the amount of overdoses has increased immensely as well.

“They’re struggling with using but not wanting to die,” a medic noted.

According to the New Yorker article, nearly all of the addicts in West Virginia are white, born in the area, and have modest to little income. High levels of poverty and joblessness produce psychological distress, which in turn, can be numbed by the use of heroin and prescription drugs. Unfortunately for many of these heroin users, it often leads to overdose.

Heroin can be found in powder and pill form. CC Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“That’s the scary part- that it’s becoming the norm,” a West Virginia resident said within the article, referring to heroin overdose.

The widespread and detrimental use of heroin on a person can also affect the family as a whole. As seen in Hillbilly Elegy, many children are often exposed to the traumatic effects of having a heroin addict for a parent. A report on child welfare and substance abuse claims that being raised by a drug-dependent parent leads to:

  • poor cognitive, delayed social and emotional development
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • other mental health symptoms
  • physical health issues
  • substance-use problems for the child

For families like J.D. Vance’s, growing up around drugs is a popular issue in their area. Recently, the drug of choice seems to be heroin, in replacement of prescription opioids.

“Heroin has become a social contagion,” claimed psychotherapist Peter Callahan.

How to solve the lethal problem? According to the New Yorker article, it will take time. However, the state of West Virginia has begun to treat the heroin epidemic as a public-health problem and aims to take further steps to diminish this deadly drug that takes the lives of so many Appalachia residents.

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office