Taking Action Summit: Poverty and Inequality in Appalachia
I think they can. I'm Michelle Lawrence, and I'm introducing...
Oh, thank you so much, Emilee. I'm going to introduce Cynthia Mil Duncan. She goes by the name Mil, and she is someone who wrote "Worlds Apart," a book that really helped me to begin to understand some of the issues around poverty and otherness in Rural America. I'm going to turn it over to her to start just because we got going a little bit late today.
But at the end of the session, if you would like to have questions for Ms. Duncan, if you could either step to the mics in back or online, if you could be sure to send them to the co-host on the chat, not the host.
- So today I'm gonna talk about poverty culture and how poverty culture in place are intertwined.
Yeah, the two chapters.
- I will describe three kinds of a rural places in America, amenity rich places, transitioning places, and persistently poor places. And I will talk about my study in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and Northern New England in the 1990s and then 20 years later. I think that the inequities, scarce jobs, and stigma that perpetuate poverty also feed and exacerbate the opioid crisis in rural places like Appalachia. And I'm curious if that's your experience.
Poverty is defined as $27,000 by the US census for a family of four, but income levels don't tell us much about what it means to be poor. We understand poor people better when we know about the fabric of their lives, their relationships and families, the choices they have or not had, and the decisions that's made, difficult ones and sometimes bad ones. The poor often say they nest up and blame themselves for their circumstances, but no one chooses to be poor. Perhaps just as someone chooses to be addicted to drugs.
For decades, poverty analysts and politicians cast a debate about why people are poor in terms of culture versus structure. Some emphasized personal responsibility and a true poverty to bad decisions and bad behavior. Poor people did what they wanted to do, they think. And it got them stuck in poverty.
They choose a culture of poverty, a way of life that's poverty. Now others stress the barriers poor people face from racism and sexism, to the way work is distributed, or the prevalence of low wage jobs. They would say you can't blame the victims. It's about the opportunity structure, not culture.
In the 1980s, sociologist William Julius Wilson challenged the stark economy in his study in Chicago. Poor income people were beginning to call an underclass. He found that structural factors like job availability or the presence of a middle class affected culture or how the poor behave and the decisions they made. He said, "Without jobs and without the examples and institutional investments of a middle class, poor people experienced social isolation and turned to gangs or drugs, drop out of school.
They make bad decisions that cut them off from participation in the mainstream." This is related to the definition of poverty that Peter Townsend gives. Poverty is the lack of resources necessary to participate in the activities, customs, and diets commonly used by society. And as resources diminish, there occurs a sudden withdrawal from participation.
So poverty is the lack of material and cultural resources, and when you lack these resources, you tend to withdraw from the mainstream community. And perhaps you get into trouble. Development scholar, Amartya Sen, talks about poverty in terms of not reaching one's full capabilities, full potential. He and his colleagues said the poor are people who are deprived of basic capabilities to be healthy, literate, and lead long, healthy, creative lives.
The poor are unable to participate fully in society; deprived, denied, to not participate. Again, no one chooses to be poor. Poverty is not a choice people make, a preference they have for how to live. But the poor may (indistinct) embrace the trapping in poverty.
There are structural factors and then as Wilson puts it, there's cultural learning. But what is culture? Anthropologists often speak of culture as a way of life, but I like Ann Swidler's idea that culture is a kind of toolkit. A toolkit assembles stories, rituals, and worldviews that we put together as we experience the world.
She says culture is more like a set of skills and habits than a set of preferences and wants. We begin to fill our toolkit in our families, and then in our neighborhoods and through our friends, later in institutions and organizations, like schools and workplaces. We acquire the habits and skills, the stories and worldviews that we decide to use, but that help us decide how to act and what to do. Should I have a child young or wait for a stable relationship and more income?
Should I drop out of school or finish school? Maybe go on for more training or education? Should I get involved with drugs or not get go with that crowd? Should I get a job or rely on others for support?
Our cultural toolkit provides an understanding of what people like us do. So poverty is a lack of resources that prevents old participation in mainstream. Much of my work is focused on community and how people and places are intertwined, how place matters. Rural places, of course, are less densely populated, places that are smaller and often remote, compared to cities or suburbs.
I have found that trying to understand poverty in rural places is helpful to understanding poverty anywhere. In small, rural places, you can make the connection between basic experiences and the social and community context of class and power, the connection between culture and opportunity. You can see the ways in which those who are poor have been deprived, often deliberately. Over six and a half million people live in poverty in rural America.
Nearly one in four rural children are poor and in some poor rural areas, over half the children are poor. So what is rural? Officially, it's places that aren't urban, places with 2,500 people or less, or places outside the metropolitan embrace, outside urban cores with at least 50,000 people. There are people who say if you've seen one rural place, you've seen one rural place.
But I disagree. There are patterns. I find it useful, as I said, in about three kinds of rural places, amenity rich places, transitioning places, and chronically poor areas. Amenity rich areas have natural amenities like mountains and lakes or sea shores that attract retirees, recreational tourists, and lack (indistinct) professionals.
Think like Aspen, Colorado, Ashton, North Carolina, or coastal Maine. These areas have grown in population by almost 20% in recent years. And the newcomers are often well educated, often professionals. Transitioning areas are those that once depended on natural resources like agriculture, timber, or mining, or manual manufacturing, like paper mills or textile mills.
These places have seen blue collar jobs and mainstream businesses (indistinct) over the last few decades. Sons and daughters are no longer getting on at the plant or the mill or the mine where their fathers and mothers and even grandparents worked. Many younger workers, especially those with education and skills, have moved their families away to places with more opportunity, transitioning places of the rural restaurant. Now chronically poor areas include Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, really the whole rural south, the colonies along the Mexico border, some areas in the southwest in Indian country; places where economic hard times are longstanding.
These places struggle with the legacy of neglect, neglect by government and by local power positions. Here the poor were often vulnerable to ruthless exploitation by local (indistinct) who wanted cheap, compliant labor to work on ranches, on plantations, in mines, or low wage factories. They were made to feel separate. They were excluded, deprived.
They were stigmatized and blamed for their lack of resources. A long time, lack of investment in education has a lot of people in poverty. Nearly 40% of children in chronicly poor areas live in poverty and 20% of adults haven't finished high school, higher in some places. There are more single mother households and there's greater reliance on disability in and other transfer programs.
The impact of the pandemic was worse in these places. The economically structuring we have experienced across America has hit rural areas hard. Goods producing jobs have declined and service providing jobs make up a greater proportion of American jobs. The transitioning areas bear the brunt of this economic restructuring.
Chronically poorer areas are also losing goods producing jobs. An important element in all of this for rural places is the way work defines people and their community. The economic restructuring, the loss of the industry, generations that rely on community is a challenge to people's heritage and sense of themselves. People are nostalgic, sometimes bitter as they grapple with change.
In our Percy School interviews with nearly 17,000 rural residents, people told us that they feel strong ties to place and deeply valued community and family. They are committed to small town life. The familiarity, the looking out for one another, especially family members, and the quieter pace and natural beauty. But some are trapped by lack of skills and poor education, others by opioid addiction or other substance abuse.
And these trapped people rely on their nearby families for all kinds of support by necessity, rather than choice. And perhaps these cultural values, these ties to family and community characterize rural people in a way that differs somewhat from urban and suburban. I wanna tell you about a study that I conducted in the 1990s and then updated 20 years later. My students and I interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life.
We tracked decades of census data in three places: two chronically poor places, coal dependent community in Appalachia that I call Blackwell, a plantation community in the Mississippi Delta that I called Dahlia, and then a transition place, a paper mill and timber dependent community in Northern England that I called Grey Mountain. In the Appalachia and Delta communities, I found there were just two classes: haves and have nots, and no real middle class. Everyone talked about it. The poor were socially isolated in these poor communities.
They attended different schools, different churches than the haves, chaotic county schools versus the more challenging county seat schools in Appalachia; chaotic public schools versus private cabins in the Delta. They went to small, evangelical churches with traveling ministers, while others went, the haves went to large establishment Baptists or Presbyterian churches. The poor were blamed for not trying hard enough to work. In the coal region, Blackwell, one person told us, "And then there's the people who don't wanna work at all, never have and never will.
We call them the first of the monthers because they come out of the hollows with about 10 kids and don't wash. They just draw food stamps and stuff like that. They live like that and I guess that's the way they wanna live." In the Delta in Dahlia, someone said, "Maybe there wouldn't be so much drug activity if some of the trash and some of the old homes and cars were picked up, if some of the places were condemned and torn down.
The Black community as a whole sees nothing wrong with illegitmate children. They see absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of instant gratification on Saturday nights." Now names matter in small communities. One person said, "A lot of times you can hear somebody's last name and before you even meet them, you've already got an idea that they're either a good person or as sorry as can be."
Another person said, "Those that have a horrible name, when they come in, we know them. And they're not worth 2 cents. They're as sorry as can be. Stealing, selling dope, bootlegging, picked up for drunk driving, in and out of (indistinct) support."
Someone else said, "Everyone around here knows everybody, and they know what family you come from. Now my family has always been a bad family. There are places we can't even rent a house. That's just the way it is.
You have to live with it. So names matter. They matter for work. You have to come from the right family.
You have to have a rich name, and then they'll take you," someone said. "For school, they make their picks on the people that's got the money. The teacher treats them right with respect and it matters for healthcare." Now think about developing your cultural toolkit.
If you are from a poor family in these communities, you are from a so-called bad family. What do people like us do? What is expected? What is possible?
The real life experience of the have nots affirm sentencing thinking about poverty's deprivation. Children from poor families are deprived of opportunity. Let me tell you about a young woman I talked with in Appalachia. She grew up in (indistinct) with a strict coal miner father and a very religious mother.
She loved school, but in high school she realized there were the so called good, rich kids and the bad, poor kids. And she began to run wild with the bad crowd. She dropped out of school, she got pregnant at 17, then married the baby's father, and they had more children. When we talked, she worked at a fast food restaurant.
She and her husband struggled to make ends meet and provide for their kids, and they had a rocky relationship. Her children were everything to her and she wanted them to avoid this space that she had made and did not have to struggle the way she and her husband did. She wanted her daughter to be independent and her boys to be responsible. She said, "I want them not to drop out, not to end up sitting on the porch all day.
I want my girl not to marry and get pregnant too young, but to have a good family when she's ready. And then my boys, I don't want them to have children and go to work and barely be able to feed them, barely be able to put diapers on them, and just have to scrounge like Billy and myself. I don't want them in the mines. I want them to do better for themselves.
You know, they don't have to be lawyers or doctors. They can be teachers, nurses, social workers, manage a fast food restaurant, not just (indistinct) it at a hard, scrounging everyday job to get by. Now the Delta have nots were the poor, Black majority; vulnerable, independent. A White waitress says to us, "If one of the Blacks was to piss Jimmy off, he could make it hard on the boy, get him fired.
See over here, the Blacks don't have the opportunities that Whites does. They're really mistreated. So there were two worlds, White haves and Black have nots, different schools, different churches, different work opportunities. Blacks depended on the boss man, as they call him, not only for work, day labor work, but also for credit and often housing.
You needed your mama's signature and boss man's 'okay' to get credit." So let me tell you about Caroline. She's a single mom living in a rough neighborhood who had a really rough youth and then found religion, and was trying to raise her kids right and like (indistinct), help them avoid a mistake she made. She said she had to live in this rough, trashy neighborhood with fighting and drinking because she couldn't find any other place.
But she didn't like it. Growing up, she too liked school, but she missed a lot of school to take care of her 12 siblings while her parents worked in the fields or her mother was sick. She says, "The principal just told me to quit coming." In other words, deprived an education.
She loved being outdoors, even in the heat, but she was not filling her toolkit to see the broader world. She described herself as "dog ignorant." As a 16 year old, she married and left the Delta for Chicago with a man, turned out to be a drug addict, who hurt her, cut her badly, and threatened to shoot her. She made her way back, but she ran around and partied.
She said, "I wasn't taking care of my kids or my house. I was seeing a lot of guys, drinking and staying in hotels. I was awful, and I was miserable." Not long before we met, she had gone to a revival and found religion and her life changed.
She settled down and when I first met her, she worked whenever she could get hours in the local factory. "I used my life with my kids as an example," she said. "I say, I'm a mother of 34 years old. Here I got all five of you all.
You got one daddy, you got another. And you know that's not right. Your mother wasn't taught when she was coming up. You can be married before you have a child and before you marry, take time to know yourself and find yourself and grow.
Go to school and do something you want to do." As in the coal community, the Delta poor are mocked and discriminated against. They are isolated and distrustful. In many cases, they have accepted the way things work, the way they are treated, the way they're deprived of opportunities.
Leaders in both Blackwell and Dahlia complain about this mindset. Twenty years ago in the 1990s, poverty was high and education was low. These chronically poor communities had almost no middle class and people looked out for their own families, rather than investing in the broader community. Everyone could name the families who run things; the coal operators and merchants in Appalachia, the big plantation owners in the Delta.
They block new businesses to preserve their own power. They punish those who challenged them. One the guy said, "You don't wanna make enemies, especially if you don't have importance. If they blackball you, you'll never even flip a hamburger again around here or in the Delta.
These farmers will cut you out. They will run you out of town." Politics was corrupt. People described vote fine and explained how uneducated people voted as they were told at the polls.
In both places, if you tried to speak up for change or you voted the wrong way, you could be blackballed or your nephew or your mom lose their jobs. Life was family based and church based, and families and churches were grouped by class, and in Delta, also by race. In the 1990s, there was a more diverse, more prosperous paper mill company community in the Northern New England region. The community was mostly made up of a blue collar middle class, union members.
Everyone attended the same public school, poor as well as middle class. People talked about the lack of traditions and how their kids played baseball together and went to scouting together. Their community had strong civic culture. There was trust, there was broad participation, and community wide institutions.
A robust public, like you could say, made possible by a large blue collar middle class, compared to the burden of high common poverty and extreme inequality in coal country in the Delta. Diverse ownership of business and plan as opposed to the tightly held resources in Appalachian and the Delta; and a long history of investing community institutions, as opposed to keeping workers ignorant and looking out for just one's own family in the coal community and plantation community. Historically, the coal companies and plantation owners wanted cheap and compliant labor. They discouraged education and community participation, fair unions in the coal region, and civil rights organizing in the Delta.
When mechanization reduced the need for labor in the forties and fifties, both Appalachia and Delta saw huge out migration to the factories in the Midwest and North. Some state had good jobs in the mines or tractor driving on farms, but neither of these were volatile part here. And others skate by welfare or help from family, piecing together odd jobs, scrounging people would say. Young people we met from the hollows or recently off the plantation were often rough with little experience outside their isolated, small sphere of family, work life.
Although they long for dignity and respect. Young people dropped out to work in woods, the mines, the fields, or the few factories, or to take care of babies. There was an enormous education deficit for the poor. The poor in Appalachian and the Delta were socially excluded, denied mainstream opportunities to live a good life and get ahead.
Deprived by a racial and class system, but also by real people in their small communities where everyone knew each other and knew their families, and their history, where they were stigmatized. They lacked the material and cultural resources to participate, to live full, creative, healthy lives. They were denied those resources. Twenty years later, I returned to these three communities.
In some ways, much had changed and in others, very little had. I would briefly review the changes in the Delta and New England, and then spend a little more time discussing Appalachia, where opioid addiction was the main story. The original Delta chapter was called,
"Dahlia: Racial Segregation and Planted Control in the Mississippi Delta."
The updated was, "Dahlia 20 years later: New Jobs and New Politics." The flat agricultural landscape was the same, but Dahlia and its surrounding communities had become one of the country's largest gambling destinations. In the county that once had the nation's highest poverty rate, there are now more jobs than resident adults. The number of employed had doubled.
Dahlia's population had grown over 30%, for over 15 years, as much as $40 million a year in tax revenue from the casinos, 40 in the Dahlia. Financing roads and infrastructure and employing large numbers of public sector workers, poverty dropped from 60% to 30%; still pretty high. At first in the early 1990s, the casinos hired widely. They needed dealers and bartenders, housekeepers and dishwashers.
But many had a hard time keeping those jobs. As one leader told us, "You have people that only worked in the catfish industry or at the compress doing seasonal work, or in agriculture doing flat out farm labor. How is it possible for those people to get into the casino industry and maintain their job without any training? There was no way our people could be successful."
Black leaders deplored the missed opportunities to build the life skills and work habits of these potential workers, workers who had only known day labor and did not know to bathe before work, they said; to refrain from dipping snuff, to call their supervisor when their child was sick, or a missed ride prevented them for getting to work. They lacked the basic capabilities to hold a job. And what of all this revenue that are schools? They have been big public sector investments, at first, controlled violence, largely poor Whites, a regional airport, a museum, a huge arena.
And there is a large recreation center that mostly serves Black residents. But Black leaders we talked to in this period deplored the lack of cooperation between Blacks and Whites. They described the enduring racial tension and exclusion. One Black leader said, "We could have had one of the best high schools, the best hospitals, everything, but they just won't do it with us."
And they pointed to the Black neighborhoods where people still live in dilapidated homes without good sewer or water, and their teens hang out around corners, stray dogs roam in packs. When we were in Dahlia in the 1990s, Blacks and Whites worried about Dahlia's young people. A cute group of Black men, the Dahlia's Men's Club they called themselves, worked to get those kids involved in sports, away from drugs and crime and gangs. They coached and as they said, "tried to teach them not to fight with one another."
Some of these mentored young men and women were likely those who were able to hold a job at the casinos. In the winter of 2013, the casinos faced a serious downturn. Some closed, they laid people off, and revenue for Dahlia has been substantially down recent years. Unemployment when visited was up to 20%.
The nearly all Black high school, where over 85% qualify still for free or reduced lunch, sees only 50% of its students finish school. Control changed hands in Dahlia and the county board's African American now. And it's possible these new Black leaders can invest in building opportunity for low income Blacks. But the challenges are enormous because the legacy of deprivation is so deep.
Jobs alone cannot end poverty in a chronically poor place. Cultural resources matter for obtaining material resources and cultural resources are built by investing in people and educational institutions. In New England, my original title was,
"Grey Mountain: Equality and Civic Involvement in Northern New England." And the update is, "Grey Mountain 20 Years Later: Holding on to a Blue Collar Community." After a series of owners and shutdowns and re-openings, the big paper in (indistinct) closed permanently in the mid 2000s. The owners demolished the site, but they were persuaded to spare one valuable boiler.
Some of the community wanted to gentrify and developed the downtown mill site into a Riverside Hotel, expanded the community college to four years. Others wanted to build a biomass plant there using the boiler, and as the recession set in, the biomass plants supporters prevailed. In the past few years, two other longstanding manufacturing businesses went bankrupt, both good employers and good community citizens. But in addition to the biomass plant, there are two prisons tucked in the woods providing jobs.
There's an ambitious ATV and snowmobile trail project aiming (indistinct) tourists to enjoy the natural amenities. When the mill closed, housing values fell and many poor families depended on public assistance moved in. Everyone worried about the impact on the community. Someone said, "They come here and they sleep all day and raise hell all night.
They have children who are product of that lifestyle. They get coded in your school system. We were spending 80 to a hundred thousand dollars per kid because these kids had learning disabilities because of the way they were brought up. It wasn't just a (indistinct), the situation was real.
We're cleaning up the mess. Those people aren't welcome here." Now, unlike the have's perspective of the have nots in Appalachia and the Delta, but Grey Mountain hired a housing director, worked on enforcing regulations, held landlords accountable, and tore down bad buildings. They in effect turned back the slide toward neighborhood deterioration and they made self-conscious choices to stay a blue collar, middle class community.
Community participation was still the norm. One person said, "When I grew up here, we were a strong, middle class community. Everybody worked and everybody looked out for each other. My uncles and my dad's friends were Boy Scout leaders, they were hockey coaches, they were little league coaches.
My generation did the same and the younger parents were doing the same." Even though there was widespread criticism of these new poor families behavior and concern about the burden they were placing on the schools and the police, the children were wrapped in the support services as one social worker told me, "We all work together, so no matter what door you enter, there is no wrong door in Grey Mountain." The good jobs at the mill are gone and there are fewer young adults in their twenties and thirties. But Grey Mountain's overall employment and population has stayed relatively stable.
Now let's talk about Appalachia. In 1999, I titled the coal area chapter,
"Blackwell: Rigid Crisis and Corrupt Politics in Appalachia's Coal Fields." The updated section is titled,
"Blackwell 20 Years Later: Hunkering Down with Family." Blackwell had lost 20% of its population. Someone said, "Making a living is hard. If you wanna stay in Blackwell and provide for your family, you just had to go mines.
And as the mining jobs closed out, people began to leave just as they did in the other great population. And the ones that stayed behind have had to scrabble for whatever they could get." Jobs were scarce in in 1990s, and they were even scarcer in 2013 and 2014. One third families had no worker.
Coal production was down dramatically in part because the seams are harder to reach and in part because of competition for natural gas. There were efforts to develop recreation activities and ATV park and trails, zip line, horseback riding. Some said the rivers were cleaner and the bass were back, that there was good bear and elk hunting. But scarce jobs was the chief reframe.
The new welfare program's time restrictions meant that only a few families still relied on welfare, but we found the poor were still criticized for their failure to work, their reliance on disability and food stamps, on Medicaid. And pain killer addiction had run through the region, touching haves and have nots alike. One person told us, "I had drugs take everything I ever loved in my whole life away from me, my home, my truck, my bass boat, my four wheeler, my guns, everything. And now I'm a convicted felon.
I cannot own a gun no more. I destroyed my whole family's name. I can't get a job nowhere." An 18 year old mother, just out of recovery said, "We didn't have nothing to do.
Got into drugs, breaking the law. I experienced everything when I was a teenager and I got a boyfriend young, children young. I started everything young. Everybody that I went to school with, they all either lost their children or have I gave them up to their parents."
She says Blackwell is home and she plans to stay. "I guess I got used to it and I would feel out of place if I ever moved. I'm so used to being here with family. You know everybody."
But many have left. The community has lost a third of its population in recent decades. There's just no jobs. People told us every family has seen prescription drug problems.
Every student raises a hand when the teacher asks if they know someone who is addicted. A lawyer said it's rare for me to have a family law case where drug use is not an issue for one or the other. Drug addiction has broad impact as I'm sure all of you know, not just on families but on the community, for people now worry about death from those needing to feed their addictions. One young woman told us, "When I was on them, I didn't think about anything else but that pill.
Now in recovery she says, "I want to live. That's the truth. I wanna live." Importantly, and perhaps not surprisingly in a stagnant economy or people move away and not in.
The same family ran things. "There's a lot of politics here," someone said. "If someone does not like you, you cannot get ahead and you have to leave. It's the same family that's running things.
It's just a different generation." Politics may be less corrupt. Though, one politician told us that he was told the person he wanted to vote for him had already sold his vote to someone else. But the bottom line is that jobs are hard to come by and people are leaving, and those who stay are hunkering down with family support.
Many travel by high poverty or drug addiction, any parents or grandparents to help take care of children or put food on the table, provide a trailer on their property. Others just wanna find a way to stay in your family, and they piece together part-time work, SNAP, have housing on family land. And someone said, "A lot of people really stay here because all their family is here. I mean, you are just surrounded by them.
It's a family oriented place." So Blackwell's future in coal did decline with high out migration, high poverty dependency, with community wide drug addiction (indistinct). Dahlia with new opportunity, has seen the grip of the old power structure loosen. But the legacy, the tight oppressive White control for so many years continues and education is still in crisis.
Grey Mountain with only 12% in poverty with its civic culture intact is making a transition to a new economy. Less vibrant, but stable. It's like much a transitioning world, America today with recreations, prisons, energy production, and increasingly older population. So in conclusion, in the rural communities I have studied, the three I mentioned and others in Maine, in North Carolina, people rely on and provide support to their family members.
And they're often tied to their small community where everyone knows everyone. As one leader said, "You've got this togetherness and then you've got this rough and tumble." The smallness as we had seen carries a weight if you are poor, if you lack resources. Stigma about against those from bad families is harsh and ongoing, and now it extends to those who are addicted.
One woman said, "My dad was a drug addict and stayed in trouble all the time. My big brother is the same way, and my little brother's starting to get that way. It would be anywhere, even the doctor's office or the hair salon, anywhere that would require me to reserve something in my last name, I couldn't do it. They wouldn't.
They would not allow me just because of my brothers and my dad, they would think I was the same way. People get a sense that they have to accept things as they are, that they can't change things. It's just the way it is, let's say. You can't change it."
Developmental scholar, Albert Kushman, described the paths or choices available to those in type A controlled places, where opportunities are limited as exit, loyalty, or voice. Exit is obviously out migration. Loyalty is about accepting the status quo, having the mindset that this is all I can do and recognizing the reality, that not being (indistinct) the status quo can have bad consequences, not only for you but for family members, (indistinct) Blackwell. Voice is working for change, for overcoming the status quo or a few controlled opportunities to benefit themselves, to work for investing in community institutions that work for the whole community.
It's about the cultural toolkit again. It's why for those who get out of poverty had someone who believed in them, mentored them, encouraged them. I imagine that those of you who work with people in recovery play a mentoring role, help those who didn't find that will to love, to live. Prescription drug addiction is complex and as you all know better than I, has complex roots and dynamics.
Perhaps some of what we know about chronic poverty and the cultural toolkit and community can help us better understand how it can take hold and run through a community. I think I'll just mention that I think several policies that focus on human capital investment could make a difference in these places for poverty, but also for the prevalence of drug addiction. I think universal quality preschool and childcare, obviously we've seen that impact of mentoring and also wage supplements or income assistance to help families achieve stability. There's a lot of research that shows that that makes a big difference to how kids do in school and to how they think about their toolkit; that stability, like the child tax credits provides or childcare can provide, so that mothers and fathers can work.
So I'll stop there and look forward to questions and discussion. (applauding) - [Michelle]
Thank you. Again, if you have any questions, you can step up to the mic. We have a few here to start with. I just wanna make sure, can you hear me, Ms.
It says you're muted.
There we go. Go ahead, now talk.
Okay, can you hear me?
Perfect. Okay, thank you so much. I wanted to go back to what you were saying about Dahlia and the story that you told there about coaches within the Dahlia community. And I'm just wondering what your thoughts might be on whether there's a way to invest in coaches from Dahlia to potentially bridge the community to a hopeful future.
Is there a way to incentivize and encourage more folks from the community to become coaches and provide that stability to our youth and even to other adults who want to change their lives and then to invest in ways that those coaches, through links to either the local community or other opportunities, other communities can increase opportunities for their community members?
I guess I have two thoughts about that. One is that the changes that did occur in the 20 years in my visits are positive for an environment that supports those coaches. Those coaches were subject to a lot of rumors and opposition from the haves, the White elites and Black in Dahlia, because it was challenging to have the young people have greater aspiration and finish school and so forth. So the community context has changed in positive ways.
But that said, as we saw the deficit is so deep in people's ability to hold a job or know how to handle things. And so I think you need some combination of the local leadership and coaches with a national and state level investment in young people, especially so that that cultural toolkit can expand and help people see a better way, and get those habits and skills they need to participate.
- Talking more about the haves, how do we change, in your experience, the perception of the haves in the community about the have nots in the community? Particularly when we consider the divisions that you mention across the social fabric, like divisions between churches or between schools. Where do you see us beginning? Is it with revamping the schools?
Is it with the social framework? What are your thoughts?
- Well, I think it's really tough, obviously. I think that there's some indication that this next generation of haves is more civic minded, perhaps, and their ability to keep out businesses that challenged their own power has diminished and maybe they can see the benefit of more jobs, especially as the lack of jobs has become so extreme. I do think that the...
Everything's, as I said, in your time. So you've got the cultural toolkit, then you have the civic culture. And when people have a, their toolkit is such that they don't resign themselves to this is all I can be or this is all I can do, but want to finish school or participate in the community. I think that could eventually be embraced by the haves, because it would break the old law that the haves have.
But as we saw in the Northern Lima community, when there are diverse employers, nobody has that tight control and that need to keep people down in order to maintain their own control, then there's a greater chance. Sometimes my students would say, "Do you think if we had these civic leaders from New England in Blackwell or in Dahlia, that things would be different?" And I don't think it's about individuals who are...
I think it's the system that people have grown accustomed to and never...
Change agents in Dahlia and Blackwell working really hard to try to build opportunity and sometimes they get discouraged by the decisions that the have nots were making that were trapping them in poverty. I think I might be rambling rather than answering that question well, but I think there's one community that I encountered during this research where a nearby city had a new big auto plant come in. And although with community development, people like to think that one big factory's not gonna solve things. In this case, that factory needed small feeder plants in some of the rural areas nearby to provide parts.
And once those additional employers came in, it gave people freedom to work for change, to run for school board, to make schools better rather than to just get the milk contract for jobs for their family. It makes that Mothers Against Drunken Drivers could succeed in getting drunken drivers punished rather than let off because they voted for the family that was in power. And so, the diversification of employers is important and a lot of the change agents in Blackwell and coal community talked about that, about the need to break that monopoly that the local employers had. So I think it's a combination.
I don't think it's about will, but I do think investing in good policy, if we could bring ourselves to do that, would build that cultural toolkit in a way that then enables the change agents to work with more people for change and for opportunity.
- That's great. I think that's very insightful. Do you have similarly some insights into the education system? You didn't talk really about, you said there was a division between the schools.
I don't know if there's a difference in the educational quality of the schools that you've seen in these communities, but if there is a difference in the quality of education, is there a way that we move towards having equal access to high quality education across the community as a whole?
- It's a good, tough question. I mean, there was definitely a difference in the quality of education. As I said, both the public school was largely Black in Dahlia and the Delta. And the county schools in the mountains were chaotic and teachers were hired according to having the right connections more often, whereas the schools in the Delta case the Whites went to and in the Appalachia case, the professionals and their children to the...
It was a public school, but it was the county seat school. And they had higher standards and there were lots of very specific stories about those differences. I argued in the first edition of "Worlds Apart," my book that I'm telling you about, that investing broadly in educational quality was key. And you know, Finland and other advanced nations have changed their national public education system in ways that have had really demonstrable positive outcomes.
I can't see that happening in our country with global control so important. But I think we could invest more, especially if we focus on early childhood education quality, early childhood education and quality childcare. At least we're investing in those kids and there's lots of good evidence and studies showing how much that pays off. And then maybe those kids will do better in school and their parents will demand more accountability from school administrators and that kind of thing.
I think the investment, you know, kids' education and as I said when I was making my presentation in their toolkit and their sense of who they can become and what they need to do to make the decisions will pay off even though it's a long road.
- And then finally, how do you see health inequities materialize in these rural communities as a result of some of the separation in power dynamics that you've witnessed?
- Well, in ways that you'd expect, I guess that certainly the quality of care for those who are the have nots is lower than it is for the haves and the professionals in both places. That with the stigma that comes with being poor from a so-called bad family comes being treated badly when you're in the hospital or denied service if you didn't have resources, family resources, or a good family name. There are a couple examples in my book of one of the pool operators who was a complicated character and both wheels a lot of power but also has shown compassion, that he called up the hospital once when they weren't treating one of his workers well.
Because the worker didn't have a good family name or didn't have an insurance card or something. But it's still so much depends on who you know and in a place where jobs are scarce, whether it's the Delta or Appalachia in the nineties and the Appalachia even more so 20 years later, those kind of jobs, those hospital jobs or healthcare jobs are often, you know, they're very valuable. And getting them often depends on knowing the right person and that sets up a dynamic within the institution that's difficult. That said, in Dahlia when we were there in the nineties, some of the African American leaders, men and women who would come back to try to make things better in their home community, were working in healthcare and we were doing outreach and trying to improve the access for the hot months, even during that time.
- Okay. I don't think we have any other questions at the moment. Thank you very much for your presentation today. Thank you for your insight into these communities and into poverty.
We really appreciate this.
Cynthia M. Duncan, PhD
Professor Emerita, University of New Hampshire; Senior Fellow, Meridian Institute