Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rural Poverty

We hadn’t lived in southeast Kentucky long when it struck us that we were living in a place and with a people that reminded us of our experiences in the Developing World. It was more than the depth of poverty, lack of jobs, even environmental degradation. It was a basic life orientation focused either on the past or the present. Perhaps driven by simple survival, we met few whose outlook was toward the future--but many whose thoughts, conversations, and actions were rooted in the present. That meant that many decisions were made for immediate gratification, with little thought to the long-term consequences of those actions. For example, it was common for people to get a loan in anticipation of a tax refund and then spend the money immediately; for little connection of success in school leading to success in life. It was not uncommon for families living in squalor to spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on guns, ATVs, electronics and other non-necessities. I knew parents who spent an amount totally out of proportion to their salary on birthday and Christmas gifts. Even the terrible scourge of selling and/or using drugs pointed to this kind of thinking. This short-term orientation made it difficult for people to think about the future and about the effect of their behaviors on their own future.
It seemed that this inability or unwillingness to think about the future meant that dreams were in short supply. And when dreams die, the future (and the present) become even bleaker. So few young people seemed able to envision their own success. This lack of drive, ambition, dreams, visions (especially in youth) were especially hard to understand. It also meant that we found much pleasure in meeting those people who had lives filled with optimism and possibilities. However, almost no one we met seemed able to envision theirs to be a healthy, thriving community.
We discovered, too, that rural poverty is much more complex and difficult to address than urban poverty. In the mountains, the poor were scattered in invisible hollers, far away from anybody’s line of sight, and out of the mind of even their own county services. There were few jobs, no universities, no mass of people from which to draw human or monetary resources, no collection of health providers, no public transportation, no institutions, no grocery or hardware stores on corners, no churches large enough to address the needs. In southeast Kentucky land issues also fuel poverty, with huge swaths of land owned by the government, making it unavailable for private ownership and thus taxation (Daniel Boone National Forest & Cumberland Gap National Park) or held in some tension between private and corporate ownership (local mineral rights owned by coal companies). Lack of jobs, educational attainment, a culture of poverty, tight family units given to suspicion and squabbling, isolation, a population too dependent on government largesse, attitudes of entitlement—all magnified the poverty of the region’s very soul.
We never found answers. We only joined in the struggle for the short time we lived and worked in the mountains. We were fortunate in that my work of finding a sustainable health system had a solution; and Alan’s work on infrastructure also had a tangible focus. We believe that many of the resources, gifts, and talents needed to make a good life are resident within a community—not imposed from outside. We loved living among and working with the best of the Red Bird Valley. We hope that dreamers rise up from the community and cast a vision that brings enough people, energy, determination, and hope to transform community. It will be difficult, success is not ensured, & so far the soul of poverty has been winning the war.

1 comment:

Lores Vlaminck, RN, BSN, MA, CHPN said...

You have an amazing talent of writing in a way.. that someone like me... never having been to the hollers.. can find a picture as I read your descriptions. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so articulately and without embellishing or diminishing the facts.
I will read on..