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What are the Causes of Poverty in Appalachia?

By Jan Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The causes of poverty in Appalachia include a lack of job opportunities and public services, a rural environment and health hazards. These causes are widespread and typically considered to be generational in nature.

The Appalachian region extends more than 1,000 miles (1609 km) along the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi in the United States. The area is commonly considered rural, with nearly half of its residents engaged in agriculture, mining, and heavy industry. Slightly over 40 percent of Appalachia's population of over 24 million residents is rural. The quality of education in rural areas such as Appalachia may also be substandard, especially in low-income counties. Rural youth in the United States do not tend to aspire to college degrees with the frequency of urban and rural students, and less education may translate into lower earning power.

Appalachia commonly has a difficult time attracting quality industries and higher-paying jobs to the area. This may be due in part to a lack of basic public services. Poor communities often do not have the resources to fund water and waste water improvements. Without the adequate infrastructure,companies may be reluctant to go to Appalachia. As a result, the residents typically rely on the limited industries located close to their homes for work, which contributes to poverty in Appalachia.

Because of the lack of basic public services, public and environmental health hazards are sometimes present in Appalachia. More than one fourth of the Appalachian residents are not served by a community water system and must rely on private wells for their drinking water needs. Nearly half of all households have on-site waste water disposal as opposed to community utility systems. Poor health may increase the odds that people will fall into and remain in poverty.

Many communities in Appalachia lack telecommunications infrastructure because access to telephone and Internet service can be difficult to provide to rural areas without adequate funding. The long-term poverty in Appalachia may be sustained by a lack of these vital services. For example, without telecommunications, school districts are unable to provide distance learning programs for rural students. The lack of high-speed Internet access in Appalachia also adds to its challenge in attracting new businesses.

Discrimination based upon race, economic class, and gender is sometimes present in rural areas like Appalachia. This discrimination may continue to block opportunities for those who may have who lived in poverty for generations. Long-term neglect regarding the needs of the poor can result in the generational poverty in Appalachia.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1004634 — On Mar 19, 2021

My dad grew up in Appalachian poverty. The thing that saved him was the GI Bill. He could afford college, got a degree and had a very comfortable life.

By jcraig — On Oct 19, 2011

I know in some of the Appalachian states, coal mining is a huge industry. There are entire families that devote their lives, literally, to mining.

Not to take away from the importance of coal mining, but I have a feeling many of these families have never had the importance of a college education conveyed to them. Without encouragement from parents, kids are much less likely to go to college.

It is really a vicious cycle. Even if a child wanted to go to college, there usually aren't a lot of choices close by. Other school are an option, but they may be expensive, which is obviously a problem. Besides that, with poor schools, students may not even be prepared for college in the first place.

It all starts at the bottom. Federal and state programs need to start focusing on how to educate these students and making sure they are prepared for college and can afford it.

By jmc88 — On Oct 18, 2011

@TreeMan - Good point about the logistics issue. That would also come into play with education. When I was in school, we were always taking field trips to museums and other places. If you live several hours from the nearest city with those kinds of places, it makes it harder for students to experience new things.

I'm curious about the motivation and encouragement that students receive from teachers, as well. When I was finishing college, I almost joined a group called Teach For America that takes recent graduates and puts them in schools from impoverished areas for a couple of years. It gives the graduates a job and experience while helping out school districts that might not have enough teachers skilled in certain areas. Anyway, they supply teachers to Appalachia.

Math and science are the two hardest to find qualified teachers, since almost no one wants to move to Appalachia to teach.

By TreeMan — On Oct 18, 2011

I do think a comparison with urban poverty would definitely be interesting. I think it is important to note that the stereotypes about southern states aren't always true.

I had an internship in college where I did forestry work in southeastern Kentucky and western Virginia. Coming from a rural Midwest background, it was a completely different culture that I had to get used to.

There was one main town, but if you didn't live there, you couldn't get access to cable or broadband internet. Even cell phone service was very limited.

I can understand why it would be hard to entice businesses to move to these locations. Just the logistics of having a company in some places would be hard, since the place where I worked was an hour and a half away from the nearest interstate.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 17, 2011

@subway11 - It really is interesting to see the differences in poverty between Appalachia and inner cities. Both areas struggle, but cities tend to get more attention based on perceived crime rates and the higher interaction rate between those people and rural people in Appalachia.

I would be interested to see the crime rate data from people in impoverished Appalachian areas. There might not be as many high profile crimes like murders, but I bet there are still a lot of other crimes like shoplifting and domestic violence.

By subway11 — On Oct 17, 2011

@Oasis11 - Infrastructure improvements are a big step because if many of these communities had Internet service the children would even be able to attend a virtual school online which would give them access to a good education regardless of their location.

It could also help the parents further their own education and receive a better job. I think that if infrastructure investments were made in this area businesses would also be able to create opportunities in terms of jobs as well as additional goods and services to the region.

I think that the quality of life for the people of Appalachian Mountains would drastically improve. Businesses have to get special tax breaks that will encourage them to go into these remote areas because if they don’t see any potential for their business they are not going to make the investment and poverty and hunger will continue in the region.

By oasis11 — On Oct 16, 2011

You know considering all of the poverty aid that we offer foreign countries it is amazing to see deep poverty in communities like this in the United States. With all of the money that taxpayers pay into Washington we should develop programs to help communities like this because when there is a lack of infrastructure and no available jobs some of these people resort to a life of crime because they see very few choices.

I think that before we offer aid to other countries we have to make sure that we provide aid to the citizens of our own country that desperately need it. In a country as rich as the United States we should not have problems like this.

I think that if more attention is drawn to the people of the Appalachian region then more people will understand the poverty issues that they face and hopefully we can find a poverty solution that will work for them. No one should have to live like this.

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