Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Appalachian Woes

I was recently reminded of a documentary that I saw a couple of years ago about families growing up in the Appalachian region, one of the United State's poorest areas, titled "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," (Click here to view the whole documentary). I must say, I cannot stress enough the importance of seeing this documentary and realizing that extreme poverty is not just an international problem and it is surely not segregated to certain ethnic backgrounds by any means...but it's in our own back yards. If you don't agree, check out the following map. I know many of you reading this live in many of these counties and areas shown. I know that I see my home county on this map. Did you happen to know that Pittsburgh is the largest city in the Appalachian region and, according to one source, the unofficial capital of Appalachia (According to the "Appalachia" Wikipedia article, "Pittsburghese" is a dialect of Appalachia). Other notable cities in this region include Ashville, NC; Columbus, OH; Knoxville, TN; and Wheeling, WV.

This document struck me hard for a number of reasons. I have done some traveling throughout this area, being from it. Driving from Pittsburgh to Knoxville, TN over the past couple of years to visit my brother, you cannot help but notice the poverty the surrounds you as you enter southern West Virginia which, according to the map, is Central Appalachia. It's reminiscent of such American memories like moonshine, Hatfields and McCoy's, hillbillies, and more. Let's keep in mind that I have traveled throughout Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, yet there is still something unnerving about the poverty that you see traveling throughout Appalachia and realizing that you are not in some third world country,  but in the United States and close to some of the biggest metropolitan areas in our nation (New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh,  Baltimore, Washington D.C., etc.) According to Ohio University, 1/5 of Appalachian children live in poverty. Should you not have time to watch the documentary, although I highly recommend it, this Huffington Post article does a great job of summarizing many of the viewpoints that Diane Sawyer, an Appalachia native herself, presents.

I am not arguing any sort of socialist agenda or that one side is right over the other in the fight against poverty, but that we need to be aware of poverty in our own areas. This documentary tells of the prescription drug trade, where some pills fetch prices hundreds of dollars more than urban areas like Detroit or Los Angeles. Mountain Dew, a former favorite drink of mine, has become a highly addictive substance that is literally rotting the mouth's of children and adults, creating an area with the worst dental hygeine in our nation (and yes, worse than anything I saw in Haiti. Many developing nations are lucky that they don't have a diet based upon processed sugars, so it is better for their teeth). So many more points are presented, but I had to get these viewpoints down.

In the Book of James (1:27), we see that God calls us to care for orphans and widows and throughout the Bible we see God's call to love our neighbors, love others, and share the Gospel. We see Jesus helping the poor, although he himself was poor. Do we not realize that these are our neighbors? Many of them live right down the street from us. Again, if you don't think that Appalachia is in our area, drive to South Beaver Twp. in Beaver County, PA near the Ohio line. This is near where I grew up and you see many examples of this poverty. Skirt down into Greene, Fayette, and Westmoreland counties in PA, Ashtabula County, OH, or the I-79 corridor between Pittsburgh and Erie, PA. Once you do that, let me know what you think. Do a quick Google Image search for Appalachian Poverty or Appalachian Poor and you will quickly see your screen filled with many images you would not expect to find in the U.S.

I cannot paint a totally gloomy picture of Appalachia though, as it is a region steeped in history and culture. Most of the Civil War was fought throughout the Appalachia region, it has brought us country and blue grass music, the Kentucky Derby, and the Pittsburgh Steelers (ok, maybe some bias there). Take a quick tour through National Geographic's "Discover Appalachia" map, which highlights many natural and cultural wonders throughout the area. I must remind you though of this, even among the attractions and fun...poverty still looms right over the hillside. It's a lesson I learned in Haiti as you fly out of Cap-Haitien and see the poverty, yet right on the other side of the mountain is Royal Caribbean's "Labadie Beach" with it's resort style features. Guests to this area have no clue that right on the other side of their relaxation spot lies some of the worst poverty in the world, while visitors to the New River Gorge have no idea that just down the river lies children with no education, food, or hope for a better life. We can give them hope.

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