There’s a great deal of drug use, welfare fraud, and the like, but the overall crime rate throughout Appalachia is about two-thirds the national average, and the rate of violent crime is half the national average, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. [Booneville, KY police Chief Johnny] Logsdon is justifiably skeptical of the area’s reputation for drug-fueled crime. But he is not blinkered, and his photos of spectacular autumn foliage and delicate baby birds do not denote a sentimental disposition. “We have loggers and coal producers,” he says, dropping the cornpone accent. “We have educators and local businesses, and people in the arts. And we have the same problems they have in every community.” He points out that the town recently opened up a $1 million public library — a substantial investment for a town in which the value of all residential property combined would not add up to the big lottery jackpot being advertised all over. (Lottery tickets, particularly the scratch-off variety, are ubiquitous here.) He does not deny the severity or scope of the region’s problems, but he does think that they are exaggerated by visitors who are here, after all, only because Owsley holds the national title for poorest county. Owsley’s dependent underclass has many of the same problems as any other dependent underclass; but with a poverty rate persistently at the 40 percent mark — or half again as much poverty as in the Bronx — the underclass plays an outsized role in local life. It is not the exception.
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And that, too, is part of the problem with adverse selection in the Big White Ghetto: For the smart and enterprising people left behind, life can be very comfortable, with family close, a low cost of living, beautiful scenery, and a very short climb to the top of the social pecking order. The relative ease of life for the well-off and connected here makes it easy to overlook the real unpleasant facts of economic life, which helps explain why Booneville has a lovely new golf course, of all things, but so little in the way of everyday necessities. The county seat, run down as parts of it are, is an outpost of civilization compared with what surrounds it for 50 miles in every direction. Stopping for gas on KY-30 a few miles past the Owsley County line, I go looking for the restroom and discover instead that the family operating the place is living in makeshift quarters in the back. Margaret Thatcher lived above her family’s shop as a little girl, too, but a grocer’s in Grantham is a very different thing from a gas station in Kentucky, with very different prospects.
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In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place. There is no cure for poverty, because there is no cause of poverty — poverty is the natural condition of the human animal. It is not as though labor and enterprise are unknown here: Digging coal is hard work, farming is hard work, timbering is hard work — so hard that the best and brightest long ago packed up for Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Memphis or Houston. There is to this day an Appalachian bar in Detroit and ex-Appalachian enclaves around the country. The lesson of the Big White Ghetto is the same as the lessons we learned about the urban housing projects in the late 20th century: The best public-policy treatment we have for poverty is dilution. But like the old project towers, the Appalachian draw culture produces concentration, a socioeconomic Salton Sea that becomes more toxic every year.
The White Ghetto: In Appalachia the country is beautiful and the society is broken, by Kevin Williamson
We’ve learned, painfully, that for the multigenerational poor, home might be the worst enemy. Appalachian loyalty to the land is the stuff of legend, yet the stubbornness of poverty in the region means that those who stay risk being poor forever. When the government paved thousands of miles of roads in Appalachia, it hoped to provide employment for the masses and infrastructure to sustain future economic growth. But the best and most lasting effect of those roads was to give people a faster way out. If we cannot improve the urban ghetto or the mountain hollow — and the evidence suggests we can’t — then the best anti-poverty program is a ticket to somewhere else.
Consigned to ‘Assistance’, by J.D. Vance