Appalachian Change & Resistance
In Uneven Ground, Ronald Eller analyzes the conflict between modernization of the Appalachian region and the challenge this made for the people. Additionally, Eller discusses the historical development of the governmental agency called the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), that aimed to coordinate resources to the Appalachian people (Eller, 2008.) The ARC likened that of the War on Poverty, initiated programs that perpetuated the political and economic inequalities by causing dependence on the system (Eller, 2008.) Rarely did the programs address the underlying problems Appalachians faced because investments went to cities, new roads, highways, schools, retail centers, and other public infrastructures (Eller, 2008.) In fact, fewest ARC dollars went to the counties with the worst economic conditions of the region (Eller, 2008.) Because the ARC had faith in consumerism and modernization, it sought to bring modern economic expansion to the mountains.
The ARC’s goals were to align the mountain people with resources and options in the context of a consumer-based, capitalist society. For example, 80% of total ARC appropriations were afforded to highway construction projects (Eller, 2008.) The process was an aim to get poor or unemployed people out of the rural confines of the hollows and commute to jobs in town or cities (Eller, 2008.) Consequently, the changing mountain landscape towards a consumer society, were done so because of the coal and timber industries (Eller, 2008.) The expansion of surface mining leveled thousands of acres of mountaintops because the coal industry benefited from mountaintop removal (Eller, 2008.) Few of the coal communities benefited from the infrastructure and industrial development efforts of the 1970s (Eller, 2008.) The limited number of service jobs and branch plants that came to nearby towns and villages, did not pay equal to that of a miner’s wage, and often did not provide health or retirement benefits (Eller, 2008.) As mentioned, the ARC was responsible for coordinating resources to fund highway and road projects. In one example, the ARC encouraged 14 government agencies to reroute the Chesapeake river through a massive cut in the mountainside to open land for urban redevelopment (Eller, 2008.)
Later, stores like Wal-Mart dotted the landscape during the Clinton era, which made it possible for indigent, exploited regional people to buy products that were made by foreign indigent, exploited people (Eller, 2008.) Wal-Mart and other outside industries were recruited for former mining sites to replace them (Eller, 2008.) The consequences of corporate chains are that small businesses could not compete with “low prices”, and so small businesses were on a decline (Eller, 2008.) Additionally, the corporate chain’s wealth did not trickle down to the region, and instead the profits went out of the region, which also led to the decline of small businesses (Eller, 2008.)
Furthermore, the prosperity from the tourism and travel industry did not trickle down to the public either (Maggard, 2007.) Kentucky’s tourism and travel industry are the third largest legal industry in the state and second largest employer (Whitaker, 2007) from hotels, food services, and retail stores (Maggard, 2007.) But, because these occupations were considered low-skilled work, they did not pay equally as other industries that were male-dominated occupations (Maggard, 2007.) Service jobs began to dominate the landscape away from coal mining (Maggard, 2007.) Moreover, these occupations were oriented towards women, in turn, women, especially women of color, were paid significantly less than men in all industries (Maggard, 2007.) In the modern age, service jobs dominate the labor force, thus there is a disproportionate population of women that are being used to run the global capitalist system while being exploited for cheap labor under the guise that women’s work is less hard compared to men’s labor.
The symbols of consumer society made by the assumptions and actions of the ARC’s developmental programs reflect the theoretical approaches described by Lohmann with bureaucratic realism and Billings’ and Walls’ regional development model. For example, the Regional development model influenced by central place theory is associated with the actions of the ARC because it attempted to modernize mountain people into business elites (Billings & Walls, 1977.) Also, the ARC worked under this regional development model because it “concerned itself with providing economic and social overhead capital, training people for skills for new industrial and service jobs, facilitating migration, and promoting the establishment or relocation of privately-owned industries through a growth center” (Billings & Walls, 1977, p. 133.) The ARC used the regional development model to justify directing funds to roads so people can get out of their hollows to work for the capitalist system. This option was considered to make Appalachians more independent, but the model worked counter to the culture. Thus, Lohmann suggests the ARC is “ultimately responsibl[e] for the problems of the region” (p. 218.)
Similarly, Bureaucratic realism as Lohmann suggests, was associated with the ARC. This is because the problems of the region were assumed to be poverty which means lack of money. Thus, the ARC initiated efforts to for economic expansion and development that created growth centers for job opportunities by introducing new roads and highways (Lohmann, 2007.) Lohmann, Billings and Walls, and Eller critiqued the ARC because the regional development model and bureaucratic realism model remains the preferred method of anti-poverty initiatives instead of new strategies. Doubts and criticisms loom over these anti-poverty strategies because the economic development means tax revenues going outside of the region to the corporations. The ARC evolved as a bureaucracy, competing with personalities and loyalties (Eller, 2008.)
Frustrated from the poor working conditions, lack of health services, low wages, and a bleak landscape of the mountains, activists formed a grassroots movement that the ARC funded, called the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force (Eller, 2008.) Grassroots movements are nongovernmental groups that work towards overcoming stereotypes, exploitation, and oppression in a community. The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force made up of young activists and college students frustrated at the environmental conditions left by large corporations that mined the region for coal and other minerals, which shipped those resources out of the mountains untaxed while leaving its workers with black lung disease (Eller, 2008.) The group conducted a pioneering study, The Appalachian Land Ownership Survey initiated by the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force, finding that these large corporations and land companies controlled up to 90 and 100% of the surface land and the mineral resources in 80 Appalachian counties (Eller, 2008.) The task force concluded that the wealthy landowners paid only a small fraction of the taxes; and absentee landowners limited and restricted job opportunities and alternatives to economic development (Eller, 2008.)
Consequently, the absentee ownership left the locals to provide for public services schools, roads, and other public facilities with their tax dollars which left the region starved for public support (Eller, 2008.) This was because absentee and corporate owners paid a disproportionately low amount of taxes. For example, in 14 West Virginia counties, 25 companies owned 44% of the surface land, yet only assessed for 20% of the area’s taxes (Eller, 2008.) Subsequently, the grassroots group prompted much of the pressure for legislators to implement a severance tax on coal and other minerals to redistribute the revenue (Eller, 2008.) Although this was a meager victory, the reaction created more dialogue, and influenced the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (Eller, 2008.) The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force’s accomplished its goal in examining land ownership patterns and address the inequality of taxation for the corporations and public.
With that said, the ARC failed to utilize any of the recommendations made in the study, nor did it act on any results from that were gathered in the study of land ownership trends (Eller, 2008.) So, the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force did not achieve its goal in the sense that government did not create a fair tax structure. The study found that 8 million acres—more than 40% of land surveyed—was owned and operated only by 50 private owners and the federal government (Eller, 2008.) But the ARC did not restrict corporations and industries from overtaking land and creating a balance and equal share of land to all people. The extent to which The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force grassroots group was meager in creating social change, and may not be more effective than government programs because it is not a public service-oriented initiative.
However, it is worth noting that research provided by The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force is often utilized in government to facilitate reform, regulation, and justice. In fact, utilizing the research propagated by the task force can aid in government programs to make them more effective and successful. The research provided was tangible, exploratory, and non-biased to the public. It is essential that government programs utilize research that aims to fix problems at the root source. Research studies are part of institutionalized learning that add to future research and further leads to empathy through advocacy. Research studies provide a historical context of a social problem to address problems at the root causes (variables and factors.) Because research presents factors and variables associated with a social issue, we can prevent, reduce, or improve on social forces involved. Research provides the public with new information, thus implications for the findings involve solving social issues and naturally a revolution.
Again, the task force as well as many grassroots organizations are individual, small solutions to a larger societal issue. The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force may not be as effective as government in facilitating positive change in the region, but the government programs put forth still do little to change the root cause of the issues of the region (Eller, 2008.) Therefore, it is important to have both government and grassroots solutions. Governments inadvertently rely on these movements to educate them—even when advocates are not necessarily experts. Because advocates have little power comparatively, it takes large groups with access to a platform to have their voices and narratives heard. Grassroots movements—although small and led by marginalized people—create large conversations that shift the consciousness. The government can be part and in par with citizen groups and grassroots movements. In fact, much legislation is influenced from these movements. In this world, corporations hold power over government while it holds power constrains people that perpetuates the struggle, oppression, and friction that it claims to reduce and prevent. We are a product of the government power and control, but we need both and one another despite that.
Considering the initiatives made by the government were thought to alleviate poverty, it was done in such a way that mainstreamed poverty such as FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, as well as the ARC, which mixed popular ideas and the self-interest of national politics (Eller, 2008.) Additionally, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Appalachian Regional Development Act (ARDA.) Under the Act included that: when public investments were invested into the region, the areas where there is significant potential for future growth are those to be targeted first (Eller, 2008.) This was because it was expected that these areas would reap the greatest returns where public dollars were invested (Eller, 2008.) In other words, investments went to cities and highway systems to get to those cities which was coordinated by the ARC (Eller, 2008.) This includes the Kentucky Tourism Development Act that encouraged outside control of property and economic resources through tax break incentives and bureaucratic organization that recreated the pattern within the region (Whitaker, 2007.) This feature of our region was from coal mining and timber corporations exploiting the land which transformed into office or fast food work (Maggard, 2007.) Other initiatives made by the government included service-oriented community action agencies (CCAs.) CCAs which were supposed to improve education and job skills, instead focused federal resources towards low-skill training opportunities such as clearing roadside brush and painting public buildings (Eller, 2008.) Presumably, the efforts made by the government programs are insulting to the people because they assume the Appalachian people want to participate in a capitalist system.
Although, Appalachians have historically resisted the ways capitalism has intruded in our way of life. For example, there are Kentuckians that have individual strategies for maintaining their identity and autonomy through diverse and seasonal work (Halperin, 2007.) This will be further discussed below in the ways women and men resisted and accepted capitalism in the region. As mentioned, The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force synchronized mountain activists for region-wide direct action against the unfair tax structure, elite capitalists, and impractical government programs (Eller, 2008.) The mountain activists were a counterculture movement that witnessed the patterns of corruption in Appalachia as well as Vietnam (Eller, 2008.) Mountain activists were against the Vietnam war because the same values and national priorities which allow this country to inflict massive destruction upon the Vietnamese (Eller, 2008.) The mountain activists and reformers, were counter to the stereotypes associated with Appalachians (Eller, 2008.)
As the nation adapted the regional development and bureaucratic realism models, Kentuckians and Appalachians, still commonly lived an agrarian life for families to subsist. Because of this, they were perceived as ‘behind the times’ when local color writers and the media forged a controlling image of Appalachians as poor (Whitaker, 2007.) This sparked a missionary movement as described by Whitaker in New Wave of Colonization: The Economics of Tourism. Over time, outside companies and corporations used this as an opportunity for profit under the ideal that it was to help create jobs for the poor Appalachians (Whitaker, 2007.) And the government generally agreed that job opportunities was the preferred anti-poverty strategy (Lohmann, 2007.) This phenomenon only made it harder for Appalachians to compete with big business. It became a matter of accepting the outside corporations to make money. What happened was a resistance of the Appalachian people (Whitaker, 2007.)
Often, Kentuckians resist dependency on capitalism because the goal is to make ends meet, without overconsumption and having too of something (i.e. power and “stuff”.) Halperin says the Kentucky way is a cultural idiom that describes the ways Kentuckians maintain their identity and autonomy in their work in a time where there is constant change in the industrial landscape. Some Kentuckians may have adapted to the changing industrial landscape, for working in factory-based wage labor, but this is negotiated because identity in their work is important to balance with kinship and working at home. Therefore, Kentuckians and many Appalachians are stereotyped to be peasant-like, because work is seen as second priority after family. Working at home maintains the rural cultural identity while balancing the kinship relationship. Although work may be unstable or informal for those who resist capitalist dependency, there is always seasonal work, rotating the periodic marketplace system such as welding, arts and crafts, construction and repair, farming and gardening.
Kentuckians and Appalachians recognize that in a capitalist-industrial system, you must have specialized skills obtained through training and education. The specialization of skills is not as varied as those Appalachians who resist capitalist dependency. For example, Halperin mentions that for Kentuckians, their work is varied, numerous, and constant tasks that change weekly, seasonally, and generationally. As mentioned, their work is central to the home, which puts an emphasis on strategies to tie work with kin and the home, mobilize family and others in the region with diverse skills to sustain the family network (Halperin, 2007.) This chain of relationships work like the capitalist system where college-educated, affluent, white males are in power and reproduce power in their own image. Instead, Kentuckians and Appalachians with informal work, network with kin, neighbors, and friends in the community who have similar skill sets or diverse skill sets and resources to help them mobilize and work on different projects, such as building a house, logging an area, or hauling materials (Halperin, 2007.)
Clearly, government programs were benefiting off corporations, and still the profits were not trickling back into the public (Eller, 2008; Maggard, 2007.) Once again, this was because taxes and land were not equally appropriated. Government programs made efforts to improve the region, but it was funded by the same people that needed the assistance. And although the government made efforts, it was at the expense of exploiting resources and cheap labor. Appalachians resisted the ways capitalism intruded their way of life (Eller, 2008.) Those who continue to resist the changes are the Kentuckians that have individual strategies for maintaining identity and autonomy through diverse and seasonal labor (Halperin, 2007.) Certainly, women were represented in the labor force, particularly working poor women, but unknowingly this meant there would be sex-segregated labor where women were part of service-oriented occupations that made disproportionately and insultingly low wages compared to men (Maggard, 2007.)
Because Appalachians have historically been exploited for the rich land of resources by outsiders, Kentuckians and others are suspicious of industry. It is not surprising that the resistance of capitalism lies in the disdain for industry, which is also a disdain for power and control of the region; and rightfully so considering Appalachians became dependent on modernization after a history of resistance (Halperin, 2007.) Through the resistance of capitalist dependency, Kentuckians maintain their livelihood, freedom, and generosity (Halperin, 2007.) Kentuckians do not want their only labor options to be strenuous, dangerous, unhealthy and toxic work like that of factory-based labor (Halperin, 2007.) It is not simply Appalachian culture that has perpetuated poverty—the root cause is the process of ‘private industrial development’ that was changing the overall American landscape (Eller, 2008.)
Billings, D. B., & Walls, D. S. (1977). The Sociology of Southern Appalachia. In Appalachian Journal, 5(1), 131-144.
Eller, Ronald. D. (2008). Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.
Halperin, Rhoda. H. The Kentucky Way: Resistance to Dependency Upon Capitalism in an Appalachian Region in Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present by Obermiller, P. J. & Maloney, M. E. (2007.) Chapter 34, 309-317.
Lohmann, Roger A. Four Perspectives on Appalachian Culture and Poverty in an Appalachian Region in Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present by Obermiller, P. J. & Maloney, M. E. (2007.) Chapter 24, 217-224.
Maggard’s “From Farm to Coal Camp to Back Office and MacDonald’s: Living in the Midst of Appalachia’s Latest Transformation” in an Appalachian Region in Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present by Obermiller, P. J. & Maloney, M. E. (2007.) Chapter 25, 225-235.
Whitaker’s “A New Wave of Colonization: The Economics of the Tourism and Travel Industry in Appalachian Kentucky” an Appalachian Region in Appalachia: Social Context Past -and Present by Obermiller, P. J. & Maloney, M. E. (2007.) Chapter 28, 245-252.