Appalachian cultural consequences from the War on Poverty

The inconvenient truth about the War on Poverty.

Appalachian Cultural Consequences from the “War on Poverty”Some of the most poignant images of Appalachia that continue to linger in the American consciousness come from Charles Kuralt’s “Christmas in Appalachia,” which aired on CBS in 1964. Stark black and white footage of eastern Kentuckians living in destitute poverty entered households across the nation. Yet one glaring omission by Kuralt, as with, more recently, Diane Sawyer in her 2009 ABC special, “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” is the question of why such poverty existed and still exists. Tragically, not much has changed in 50 years. Many commentators lay blame with the Appalachians themselves. In his lead article, Werth cites Payne as one example who indicts Appalachians for their “mass of psychological and moral problems.” Such a position, known as the culture of poverty (see Lewis 1961), has haunted Appalachians for decades. Despite strong evidence from scholars (Abell and Lyon 1979; Billings 1974) that a culture of poverty model is not viable, the myth persists.

For well over a century now, central Appalachia has been ruled by absentee landowners only interested in making the highest profit available from natural resource extraction, primarily coal. From the beginning of its presence in the mountains, the coal industry intentionally created single-industry economies to exert absolute control over the people, the politicians, the land and the wealth that still flows out of the mountains. Many critics continue to condemn politicians for their failure to implement adequate coal severance taxes, which could have better insulated coal communities from boom and bust cycles. As a result of these mono-economies, most central Appalachians have been dependent upon and at the mercy of that one industry, an industry that has a legacy of exploiting both land and people.

In the interest of brevity, I refer readers to Burns (2007), Loeb (2007) and Shapiro (2010) for examples of environmental degradation caused by mountaintop removal (MTR) coalmining. For physical and mental health impacts of MTR, see, respectively, Hendryx and Cordial (2012). Two recent reports (2012 and 2013) by the Center for Public Integrity illustrate yet another case of the exploitation of the people. The first report documents the rise in black lung disease among both novice and seasoned miners alike, while the second exposes the unethical practices of a West Virginia law firm and doctors at Johns Hopkins to make it even more difficult for miners to obtain black lung benefits. One miner had to die and an autopsy had to be performed before his widow received his benefits. Because of this exposure, Johns Hopkins has suspended its black lung program. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many Appalachians have a “lack of trust in others,” to use Payne’s words.

Appalachians’ drug abuse and addiction also have made national headlines, with the relatively newly coined term “pillbillies” gaining traction in popular culture. Regardless of investigative journalism revealing Purdue Pharma’s intentional failure to educate doctors on the highly addictive nature of OxyContin, many still believe Appalachians’ innate immorality and “self-destructiveness” are the causes of their addiction. Tragically, Purdue Pharma’s admission of guilt and consequent payment of more than $600 million in fines has not stopped some doctors in Appalachia from continuing to overprescribe the drug for their own financial gain. Even some lawmakers in the region have succumbed to powerful pharmaceutical lobbying as they refuse to implement laws and policies to restrict cold medications to prescription-only instead of over-the-counter. Such a move would dramatically reduce the ease with which methamphetamine is made using the “bake and shake” method and is supported unilaterally among healthcare providers and law enforcement agencies in the region.

Such systemic problems do need to be addressed and rectified as many central Appalachians struggle with poverty, illness, depression and addiction. It’s important to note that in an area where blue collar jobs dominate among single-industry economies, individuals do get seriously injured and are legitimately prescribed pain medication. And given the depressed economy of the region (see ARC distressed counties map), it should come as no surprise to find depressed people self-medicating. However, well-intentioned scholars, researchers and others wishing to make a positive difference in central Appalachia must avoid a “missionary mentality,” namely that superiority position of “we know what’s best for you and how to fix you and your region.” As Werth notes in his article, participatory action research and community-based research are some of the more sensitive and respectful approaches. In fact, scholars would do well to familiarize themselves with the philosophies of such visionaries as Brazilian Paulo Freire and Appalachian Myles Horton (see Highlander Research & Education Center).

Moreover, other systems operating in the region can make changes from within, as well as working with others, to bring about progressive transformations. For example, place-based education (PBE) in kindergarten through 12th grades has the opportunity to truly engage students in their education, making the learning process relevant to their lives and communities. PBE-initiatives have proven successful at reaching low-achieving students, who begin performing well on standardized tests, demonstrating a genuine commitment to their education, and connecting with their community in meaningful ways (see Sobel). Community colleges in the region also can play an important role in providing students not only technical skills, but also creative, entrepreneurial ideas and small business proficiencies. This type of educated workforce would bring much needed economic diversification to the region, but only if community banks invest capital in solid business initiatives and private foundations provide micro-loans to burgeoning enterprises.


Abell, T., & Lyon, L. (1979). Do the differences make a difference? An empirical evaluation of the culture of poverty in the United States. American Anthropologist, 6(3), 602–621.

Billings, D. (1974). Culture and poverty in Appalachia: A theoretical discussion and empirical analysis. Social Forces, 53(2), 315–323.

Cordial, P. (2012). A qualitative exploration of the effects of mountaintop removal on the wellness of Central Appalachians living near surface mines. Dissertation. Radford, VA: Radford University.

Lewis, O. (1961). The children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican family. New York: Random House.

Sobel, D. (2005). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms & communities. 2nd Ed. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.

Author biography

Theresa L. Burris, PhDTheresa L. Burris, PhD, serves as the chair of Appalachian studies and director of the Appalachian Regional & Rural Studies Center at Radford University. She has published several pieces of literary criticism on the Affrilachian writers, including chapters in "An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature" (Ohio UP 2005) and "Appalachia in the Classroom: Teaching the Region" (Ohio UP 2013), for which she served as co-editor with Patricia Gantt, PhD. Her articles have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Voice, and The New River Voice.

Burris has collaborated with professor of dance Deborah McLaughlin, on three Appalachian-themed dance/theater pieces: "The Shadow Waltz;" "Sounds of Stories Dancing;" and "Eating Appalachia: Selling Out to the Hungry Ghost." She’s currently working on three projects: "Women of Change, Women of Courage: Appalachian Activists;" "The Country Store on White Oak Grove: A Children’s Story;" and "Coal Dust Curse: Collecting Oral Histories from Appalachian Miners with Black Lung."

Burris teaches classes on Appalachian literature, Appalachian cultural and social capital, Appalachian social and environmental justice issues, the politics of identity in Appalachia and place-based education. As a part of her community outreach, she serves as a cultural consultant for the Free Clinic of the New River Valley and provides Appalachian cultural competency workshops throughout southwest Virginia.

In addition to her teaching and research, Burris works to combat discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. She resides in Washington County, Va., on a nontraditional farm called Gwendolyn Ridge with her two sons, Paul and Campbell, and her husband, James L. Werth Jr., PhD.