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Appalachian Livin' - What the Media Forgot to Tell You

I grew up privileged. I will freely admit that.

Born in suburban Medina, OH, my upper middle class parents provided me with a seemingly endless array of opportunities to choose from. This meant trying my hand at different sports, extracurriculars, academic ventures, and the like. I was supported in attending The Ohio State University (the college of my choosing) despite having received acceptance from both The Naval Academy and West Point (i.e. two options that would not have cost my parents and me a penny). Their approach to parenting combined with the sacrifices they made for me growing up have helped shape me into the person I am today - and for this, I am forever grateful.

With all that being said, I feel that those words somehow rang hollow. Most kids growing up in similar socioeconomic environments to mine with two loving parents could have written those exact same words. Without adequate life experience, those words were simply what I felt I ought to say given the circumstances. It wasn't until moving to Athens, OH that I gained the experiences necessary to understand just how fortunate I was as a kid.

Athens, OH is known by most as the home of Ohio University - a public institute with >25,000 students and the number one party school in the nation. OU is located in the heart of Athens and has allowed the city itself to flourish year-round. Downtown is "bustling" for a rurally-situated college town, with numerous coffee parlors, trendy eateries, boutiques, and thrift shops. For most, this is the extent of their experience with and knowledge of Athens. However, venture even a mile outside of the university in any direction and you'll learn the true reality.

According to the Ohio Development Services Agency, Athens leads the state in poverty at a staggering rate of 31.6%. How does this compare with my hometown of Medina? Well, Medina just so happens to have the fourth lowest poverty rate of any county in the state at 7.5%.


A (Very) Brief History: Roots of Poverty within Appalachia

Athens and neighboring counties throughout eastern and southern Ohio are part of what's known as Appalachia (pronounced with soft "A"s as in "apple") . Not all that long ago, Appalachia was booming; thanks to its rich deposits of natural resources, primarily coal. Entrepreneurs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the profit potential of the area and they did not hesitate to exploit their opportunity. Mountaintops were blasted off as mines and processing facilities popped up across the region. These coal facilities employed tens of thousands of people, many of whom lived in coal company-owned buildings, ate food and wore clothes sold from coal company-run stores, and even paid for goods with coal company-issued "tokens" as opposed to today's most common form of payment - American dollars.

Map of Appalachia (in white)

With the coal mines came processing plants and with the processing plants came railroads and collier ships. This meant even more well-paying jobs for the area's inhabitants. Despite the long hours and difficult work, most coal miners could easily make $70,000-100,000 per year. It goes without saying that no other jobs could have provided such a lucrative incentive for those living within central Appalachia. Coal-fired power plants began to appear, as the areas became ever more dependent on coal to maintain their flourishing livelihoods. Kids in their mid-teens were foregoing post-secondary and collegiate endeavors and were instead going straight into the workforce. Everything seemed to be on the up and up. Unfortunately, though, all good things must come to an end.

Barricaded entrance to the Haydenville Tunnel (mid-1800s to 1957)

Before long, those coal deposits that were Appalachia's namesake began to dry up. What's more, alternative energy sources suddenly became more easily obtained than ever. As industrialization was booming in big cities, Appalachia was left to fend for itself. Those entrepreneurs who had exploited the coal boom were also acutely aware that their capital investments would be more profitable in industrial pursuits (i.e. big cities). Not only had the region's inhabitants been left without work, but more importantly they were left without the same access to resources - food, shelter, and clothing - that had been provided by their former employers.

Moonville Tunnel (Vinton, OH)
One of the original brick plants, built in 1880

Southeastern Ohio Today: A Taste of Simpler Times

Today's Appalachia is littered with artifacts of a time when industry was booming and unemployment and poverty were low. Old railroad tunnels, abandoned coal mines, deserted roadside diners and gas stations... These constructs serve as sobering reminders of a region that has been exploited for its resources. However, that is not to say that this region should be limited by its past misfortunes.

Bricks lining the walls of the (closed) Nelsonville Brick Co.
An aging barn located in Vinton, OH (20mins East of Athens)

Setting the Record Straight

In recent years, Appalachians have succumbed to a great number of misconceptions surrounding their beliefs, values, and abilities. The media has portrayed these individuals with a painful level of bias; one that has only reaffirmed the skewed beliefs of so many Americans. I would like to attempt to set the record straight surrounding several of the most common myths about Appalachia and its people.


Appalachians are ignorant/unintelligent/stupid.


In order to fairly assess this myth, I am going to begin with a definition for intelligence. Intelligence, as discussed here, will be defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Within the framework, it should become self-apparent that Appalachians are no less ingenuitive, creative, or intelligent than any other group of people. Furthermore, I would venture to go as far as to say that Appalachians are some of the most intelligent people are nation contains. Due to the sudden loss of financial capacity within their regions, Appalachians were forced to sink or swim. In order to survive and provide for their families, Appalachians had to get creative. Have you ever wondered why so many people from this region of the U.S. excel at crafts and trades? Why so many West Virginians and Southern Ohioans can rebuild their cars, roof their own houses, or put up drywall? This is due to necessity. People respond in desperate times and Appalachians in particular have found ways to survive and even thrive through hardship. If you ask me, I'd say that this is a sign of raw perseverance and intelligence.


There isn't anything to do in Appalachia.


Look just a little further past the rust and you may be surprised by what you find. The Rust Belt is a beautiful place with more topographical diversity than many city slickers have ever seen. Pine trees, mountains, rivers, and valleys make the area one of the most beautiful in the entire country. The ridges that give the Blue Ridge Mountains their name afford us beautiful skies strewn with milky white clouds during the days. At night, the skies become overwhelmed with small, bright twinkling stars as far as the eye can see. The region is home to hundreds and thousands of acres of farmland, prairies, fields, meadows, and national forests - just one more luxury living in rural Appalachia affords us.


People from Appalachia are inherently lazy and would rather live off of welfare than work.


What happens when you do the exact same work day in and day out without fail? Imagine working an assembly line. And each and every day you stand in your defined area, you pick up cases, you place them on a pallet, and you repeat. 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. Oftentimes the monotonous humdrum of life can become overwhelming and you grow complacent. Work becomes meaningless and insignificant. This environment, devoid of autonomy, is one that no one of sound mind would ever wish for. Thanks to Adam Smith and the rise of industrialization, factories, and assembly lines, this meaningless work environment has become the norm for millions of Americans. When considered alongside the meager wages paid out at most manufacturing facilities, there's no wonder why boredom and complacency are commonplace.

That being said, let us not confuse boredom and complacency with laziness. Laziness has several definitions with starkly varied connotations however, within this context, laziness will be defined as the unwillingness to exert oneself or to work hard. Considering the millions of Appalachians currently working in mines, factories, farms, or other operations of deliberate and focused manual labor, it would be effectively impossible to label them as "inherently lazy". If any one of us were placed in the shoes of an Appalachian laborer for even a single day, we would come out with an enlightened perspective on their realities. Laziness may the byproduct of a broken system or workplaces that have been depleted of meaning, but it certainly should never be used to paint over an entire population, especially without considering the context of the statement.

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