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why poverty persists in appalachia An interview with Cynthia M. Duncan

In her critically-acclaimed book, Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, published in 1999, Cynthia M. Duncan explored why some families stay mired in poverty generation after generation, and why some regions of the country are chronically poor and depressed. Her book was based on a five-year study of the lives of residents in isolated areas of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and Northern New England.

Duncan, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, has focused her career on poverty in America and is director of the University's Carsey Institute. She spoke with FRONTLINE on Dec. 29, 2005.

How should we understand Appalachia? Is it a place apart and uniquely different from other rural areas of the country that have had a history of chronic poverty?

The answer, fundamentally, is no. The sources of chronic poverty, the ways in which it is perpetuated, and what you see today in Appalachia are characteristic of other chronically poor places in other rural areas.

I think that chronic poverty in rural areas, and urban areas for that matter, really represents long-term neglect and lack of investment -- a lack of investment in people as well as communities. And in the rural areas that I know in America, that lack of investment began as deliberate efforts by those in power -- local elites or employers -- to hold people back. Because it has worked for them, to keep their labor force vulnerable, keep them powerless.

In the case of Appalachia, the coal operators wanted to keep workers from unionizing and demanding higher wages in the early days of coal mining because the industry was so competitive. Historians have shown that the large Northeastern utilities and Midwestern utilities were pitting one small company against another. In the face of this bitter competition, coal operators tried to control everything about workers' lives to keep their labor costs down. And part of controlling everything was to not educate people, to be in control of the ministers, the doctors, the stores … and to discourage workers' participation in community life, making the workers dependent on the coal operators for everything about their livelihood and their community.

Even if a young person is watching a lot of TV, theyre not necessarily imagining ...  being a doctor, a lawyer if theyre coming from a really poor neighborhood. Theyre imagining themselves being like  the person next door ... they structure their behavior to conform to 'what people like us do.'

But the interesting thing that I and others have found is that the same kinds of patterns of control and underinvestment occurred in the Mississippi Delta and along the Mexico-U.S. border. Of course, we know the history of slavery and sharecropping was one where the white plantation owners deliberately kept blacks from learning to read or owning property or gaining skills that would give them the freedom to make more choices or to choose something besides the conditions that the plantation owners had created.

In fact, in the 1930s, when we started Social Security, Southern politicians were able to prevent farm workers and domestic servants from being covered by Social Security because they knew that the small Social Security check would support families and would change the labor market in the South. The places we see deep, persistent, rural poverty are the places where there is a combination of this economic control and, in many cases, racism.

If you look at a map of persistent rural poverty -- and there's a really good one on the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] Economic Research Service Web site -- you can see that, except for Appalachia, these are places where people of color live. First, the rural South, which is the poorest part of rural America. Every statistic you look at shows the effect of long-term underinvestment: low education, low employment, high disability, chronic problems. But then if you sweep across the country, you see the other persistently poor areas are counties with large numbers of Hispanic residents and places where Native Americans live.

photo by david sutherland

Photos taken by David Sutherland while traveling through West Virginia and Kentucky

You show in "Country Boys" how this kind of poverty is lived, experienced and reinforced, at the level of individual families and relationships. But I think that what we need to see in these decade-after-decade patterns of poverty is not just individual bad behavior -- although that's an element of it, certainly. But we need to recognize these larger histories of deliberate underinvestment for control, to maintain vulnerability. These histories of underinvestment, which most Americans would not want to see today, are now still playing out in contemporary isolation for poor people, preventing them from being able to get together what it takes to be part of the mainstream. The adults are undereducated, the institutions are poor and inadequate to make up for what families do not offer young people, and everyday life for these kids is just plain hard.

During the '60s with President Johnson's War on Poverty, Appalachia got a lot of attention, but it didn't really change much. Is that a fair statement?

I think it is. Even though it felt like a big effort at the time, in the scheme of things, it wasn't a wholesale reorientation towards investing in young people or in job training or in job development. It was relatively small scale, and it was kept a separate program rather than representing a reorientation of the way the Department of Labor or other established agencies worked, rather than making government as a whole oriented toward a fairer distribution of opportunities and benefits.

When I worked in an economic development organization, I would hear stories about how individuals' lives were changed by particular workers in the War on Poverty who believed in them or showed them another way to think about their world or their aspirations. And a lot of the more institutional investment, for example, in rural clinics, during that time, gave people the opportunities to be on governing boards and experience a different kind of participation than they'd known in an area where all kinds of civic affairs are so politicized, with a few people running them as a way to give out favors to people who support them politically. Similarly, the Appalachian Regional Commission, with its investment in infrastructure and highways, made a difference in the places where it occurred.

However, without greater commitment to investment in education and skills, without a significant economic engine to create the kind of jobs that support a solid middle class that can be holding government accountable, it didn't have a lasting, far-reaching effect for the region.

In trying to break the cycle of poverty at the level of the individual, how much does education make a difference? I'm thinking, of course, about the boys in "Country Boys."

Well, as you say, "Country Boys" shows the importance of education. But there's education, and there's education. One of the things about poor rural areas is that the quality of schooling and the expectations aren't as high as they are for middle-class kids. Even within Appalachia, as I learned in the work that we did for the study, the independent schools that are a part of the county seat were much higher quality -- almost more like suburban schools or even private schools -- than the larger, rougher disorganized county schools where the country kids went, the kids from the hollers [hollows] and the kids who were portrayed in "Country Boys."

photo by david sutherland

Although Cody and Chris had this special opportunity at the David School-- it was an alternative school that was about helping kids who had failed from the other system -- the fact that one of the boys could finish his GED but then, in effect, "fail" the ACT [American College Test] is not unusual. I would hear over and over again that people who had a high school degree or a GED couldn't sign papers at the car dealer because they couldn't read the paperwork, couldn't join the army because they couldn't pass the test. So the level of expectations and the quality of education is a really big factor. All schooling is not the same.

The other factor, besides school quality and the expectations that kids experience, is how important mentoring can be. We see this over and over, and rigorous evaluation studies show that mentoring makes a real difference for kids at risk, kids who are disconnected. It was clearly important to the boy Cody in "Country Boys" to have the counseling that he had, especially from his minister. I found that in both Appalachia and the Delta, the kids who made it were those who had mentors who believed in them, that when a young girl or boy would get special attention from a coach or teacher or an aunt or an uncle, it could make a big difference in the kind of decisions that he or she made going forward.

But a very important factor affecting poor kids' options and potential mobility out of poverty is the way the community works. We all know middle-class kids who make mistakes and get into trouble. But there's a way in which the family resources and the community resources in a middle-class setting can end up giving kids a second chance that is deeper and different than what we see in low-income communities and for low-income families.

Finally, an important thing that research shows and the "Country Boys" series shows is the critical importance of family stability. Kids who can have predictability in the family income and where families live and what's going on in the family, are time and again more successful at navigating adolescence. A lot of what Cody had, that Chris didn't, was this kind of stability. There's a wonderful set of studies, including a project called "New Hope" in Chicago and others documented by MDRC . These have shown that an intervention to give earnings supplements to families in exchange for getting the household heads and partners in the families to work steadily, has a positive effect, not only on family well-being and marriage stability, but even on how the kids did in school, what their grades were -- presumably because it is interjecting the stability.

So in other words, breaking the cycle of persistent poverty means thinking about it at both the macro and micro levels.

Yes, definitely. I came to believe that two concepts were really important for understanding poverty when I was doing my research. One was more individual-oriented, and one more community-oriented. The individual-oriented concept is "cultural toolkit," an idea first developed by sociologist Ann Swidler. The community concept is what I call "civic culture." The cultural toolkit idea resonates with what you see in "Country Boys."

The cultural toolkit concept helps us see how what a kid or anybody knows about how to make decisions, or what kind of future they have, is influenced by the world around them. Think of the toolkit as the box into which you put the experiences you have, the people you know, the stories you carry with you. And so if you think about what people bring to making a decision about whether to stay in school, or how to follow through on the idea of putting out a school newspaper, they look into their so-called toolkit of experiences, stories and the world that they know, and think about what their future is. They imagine only the most immediate world around them as framing that future.

Even if a young person is watching a lot of TV, they're not necessarily imagining their future as being a doctor or a lawyer if they're coming from a really poor neighborhood. They're imagining themselves being like their aunt, the person next door, or maybe a teacher they admire. They structure their behavior to conform to "what people like us do."

It is the day-to-day, week-to-week relationships in their lives that really matter.

Yes, what they're experiencing every day. "Country Boys" shows the immediate relationships that these kids have and how important they are.

But something else that's happening there in Floyd County, Ky., or Appalachia as a whole, is how the communities work. And that's where civic culture comes into play. Think of civic culture as the way the community works, how things are "done around here." I find it useful to think of civic culture as having three components: the extent of trust in the community, the extent of inclusive participation, and the extent of investment. Do people trust one another, or are they fearful or suspicious? Is one part of the community making all the decisions, leaving others isolated and cut out? How much are people investing overall in community institutions and how much do they care whether those institutions are open to everyone, even "the kids at the end of the road" who are hoping for a chance for mobility?

In these communities, and in Appalachia in particular, people talk all the time about haves and have-nots. And the haves aren't rich people necessarily; they're people who aspire to be like the few very rich people. They really do discriminate against the kids from the hollows. You saw references to that in "Country Boys" -- the boys' way of talking about who they were and how they were from hollows. The kind of awkward way in which one of the teachers was asking students if they were treated badly by the elite. And how when Chris was going out for a Coke with that young girl, they both could talk to each other.

Because she was from a hollow, too.

Yes. It reflects, at the individual level, the way these communities work. We didn't see it that much in "Country Boys" because of looking so closely at their immediate circle of family and friends. But one of the things that's going on in that region is this kind of broken civic culture where, because things have been bad so long and there's a history of patronage and getting things according to who you know or your family name, that there's an ongoing distrust and nervousness about whether you'll be associated with those who never do any good. And so there's a distancing -- the low-income families are really isolated from the others, made to feel they deserve what they get.

You know, even if 40 percent of the people in a community are poor, it means 60 percent are not. So we have to ask ourselves, what are those 60 percent doing and thinking? And in the case of these chronically-poor places, my experience and others' is that they're distancing themselves from the poor rather than looking for ways to bring them into the Boy Scouts or into the after-school program or into the same church as the more middle-class folks. That means that the cultural toolkit is constricted and constrained in ways that can perpetuate poverty because the individuals are experiencing such isolation, living in a world of only the poor, and being told over and over that they do not belong in another group.

They are being excluded from having aspirations of getting outside their class, their situation.

Yes. I think you see that in "Country Boys" in the ways in which particularly Chris makes excuses for himself. I'm sure a therapist would say that in a way it's helping him cope. I don't pretend to know about that. But I do think it's also part of blaming yourself for where you are and accepting the way other people are blaming you.

What is the potential for change over the next generation or so in Appalachia, to break the pattern of chronic poverty?

photo by david sutherland

It's certainly really, really tough. I think that fundamentally,when rural places lose or don't develop an economic engine that can provide stable work, then it's just an uphill battle. But that said, I really do think that we have evidence that investing in people, especially kids and young people, can make a difference. Whether it's the mentor-level investing, one-on-one, or a program that works hard with infants and very young children on language development and early childhood issues, [or] programs that invest in kids who are coming out of juvenile detention to try to make sure there isn't recidivism. We know things that work. And we even know that they can pay off financially. The Perry School High Scope program in Michigan or the Abecedarian program in North Carolina investing in pre-school programs, or any number of interventions documented by MDRC, show that investing pays off. When we invest in kids, they are less likely to get into trouble with the law, less likely to have children out of wedlock, more likely to finish school and get a steady job and form stable families. Think of the savings if we make pre-school investments and avoid prison costs. But we don't make those investments.

So breaking the chain of poverty on a really significant scale would take a concerted effort to invest in programs that we know work for kids, young people and for their parents. It can be done. You may have heard of the Knowledge is Power Schools [KIPP] that take kids from really poor backgrounds and bad neighborhoods and have enormous success through focused, disciplined programs with high-quality teachers and principals. We also know that national community service for young people can make a really big difference -- Job Corps, Americorps, the conservation corps, that kind of thing. But we barely fund these programs.

One of the things we've learned from the Clinton administration's welfare reform is that the right incentives matter. And while there are a lot of flaws with the way welfare reform was implemented, including not putting in enough support for child care and transportation and education and training, I found in my interviews, and Jason DeParle found it in his great book called American Dream, that people on welfare don't really want to be on welfare, as a rule. They'd rather be working, and they'd rather have their kids succeed. So we want to structure our investments in ways that reward work and provide the kind of supports that help people have stable families. The point is we have lot's of evidence now about what does work, but we are cutting programs and not trying new things these days. Not investing in "our lost children," as one Kentucky leader put it to me.

Maybe that doesn't get at the regional question you ask: whether there's any prospect for change in an area like Appalachia or the rural South, where poverty and education are so low. But one thing we haven't talked about much is community organizing. In addition to these programs investing in education and skills, that work when they're funded and carried out properly, there is the power of community organizing. It sounds sort of old-fashioned and '60s-ish to say this, but I think there's a lot of evidence that when people in a poor region can begin to develop a kind of pride in their history, and a conviction that they can make a difference, social change can occur. That is really what the civil rights movement was all about.

A new area that is emerging across rural America is work to encourage cultural and heritage projects. There are really wonderful projects in Appalachia, as well as in various African-American communities in the rural South, to develop tourism-based heritage programs. The same is true on some reservations among Native Americans. When this cultural pride is linked with organizing that can push for better investment programs, investment in the sense of human capital investment, in schools or in training programs, that can make a difference. People get a new sense of what is possible, not as passive recipients of charity or excuse-making, but as agents of change, insisting that more real investment occur in their communities.

I saw this changed perspective in some ways in my research in the Delta when African-Americans were coming back after having worked in Midwestern and Northeastern cities. They brought back what we might call a different cultural toolkit, a different sense of, not only who they were, but how things ought to work, that jobs ought to be on merit, not politics, that elected leaders ought to act in the public interest, not their own self-interest and aggrandizement -- that kind of thing.

Economist Albert Hirschman wanted to help his fellow development scholars think about the political dimension of development, so he talked about three choices people in poor places have: "loyalty, exit or voice." Loyalty refers to accepting things as they are, loyalty to the status quo and the powers that be; exit, of course, means leaving -- as many "with get up and go" have, moving to areas of opportunity, leaving behind those with fewer personal and family resources; and voice -- staying and working for change, insisting on equitable investment. That is the political, organizing part.

So deep, fundamental change probably will only come when those in these poor regions raise their voice and work for change, and when those of us who do not live in poor communities see our own best long-term interest realized in making these investments that will open up opportunities for mobility. We need a combination of investing resources in education and training at the right level so that it could really make a difference, and figuring out ways to expose people, especially kids, to another way of doing things and another set of aspirations for themselves that may be the root of starting a turnaround.

But as we at the Carsey Institute look at the future of rural communities, we are increasingly hopeful about the potential of linking economic development with sustainable development of the natural resources that are rural communities' greatest common asset. Places like Appalachia and other parts of rural America often still have rich natural resources. I think there are some interesting and promising ways to use those natural resources, say in sustainable farming or in working forests. Some development practitioners in coastal areas are working on sustainable fisheries and working waterfronts. In Appalachia, development practitioners like the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development are looking at timber; others in the Midwest are hopeful about what they call "green chemistry" -- ways to use natural resources in environmentally sustainable ways that can also provide new economic development opportunities. Maybe new concerns about energy security and environmental health and stewardship offer economic opportunities to remote rural places where the old natural resource economies based on extraction are in trouble. It will be interesting to see whether this "working landscapes" idea can provide jobs and enterprises that can sustain communities and make opportunities available to the long-term poor.

Final thoughts?

I think it's easy to be discouraged when we see poor people mired in dead end circumstances. When you see "Country Boys," for example, I think you can end up feeling helpless and sad for these kids and discouraged about the way their lives go in these small, depressed communities, living in trailers, surrounded by adults who are struggling just to get by, who are organizing their kids' lives around eligibility for SSI. It all feels like the individuals are stuck and that the problems are unsolvable.

photo by david sutherland

But poverty isn't inevitable. There are advanced countries and economies that invest in early childhood education or programs for youth to get training or mentoring, or programs to help adults be stable in their earnings, or make work pay. Even here in America, we have examples of stable good-paying jobs being the ticket to the middle class for low-income people: in Las Vegas where hotel and other service workers organized for good pay, families are now homeowners and sending their kids to college. After World War II, steady, good-paying blue collar jobs and the GI Bill launched many families into the middle class.

In America we value individual responsibility, and that's a good thing of course. But this focus on the individual often means we neglect our collective responsibility to invest in poor children, poor youth, and working poor families. Long-term neglect creates a really tough, challenging situation like we see in Appalachia, or the rural South, or in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. There is no magic bullet to turn these places around, but we have learned a lot about what works. We know the investments in kids' early education, youth's engagement, stability of parents' work and income make a difference. We also know that mixed-income communities are better -- that it is destructive and costly to isolate poor families in poor neighborhoods where kids' "cultural toolkits" are narrow and underinvestment becomes the norm.

Whose responsibility is it when youth like Cody and Chris are disconnected, when young people in Camden, N.J., or the Ninth Ward or the Mississippi Delta are without hope, without education, skills, role models, or a future? One way to think about it is that we're all Americans and that we have a responsibility to the Codys and the Chrises of the world, and that it is possible to invest in them, with real commitment, so they have a future, so they can join the middle class, and their kids can have middle-class schools, and have middle-class jobs, and raise strong families. It is possible.

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posted jan. 9, 2006

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