It is now nearly forty years since the bishops of the Appalachian region of the United States published This Land Is Home to Me, a historic pastoral letter “on powerlessness in Appalachia.” Rarely has any official statement of American Catholic bishops gained as much attention from the public and the media as this letter, which was issued in February of 1975. The document made Americans, particularly Catholics, aware of the astonishing conditions in which many of their fellow citizens lived. It also prompted far more intense pastoral efforts by many of the church’s organizations and religious orders to address the problems it described.

Two generations later, though the attention of the church in United States has long since passed on to other concerns, poverty in Appalachia remains. In Mingo County, West Virginia, where I lived with my family for two years, per capita income stands at $17,926 (compared to a national per capita income of $32,691). In neighboring McDowell County, it’s $12,583. McDowell’s poverty rate is more than 236 percent of the national average. Wide regions of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and North Carolina face similar levels of poverty. (West Virginia is the only state whose entire territory falls within the Appalachian region.) The problems in this part of the country include many that most Americans associate with underdeveloped nations: a lack of safe drinking water, proper sewage systems, and access to health care.  

When I reread This Land, it brings back memories of the time I spent in Appalachia with my family. The region’s natural beauty is stunning. I will never forget how the mist lingered over the forested mountainsides in the morning air. More important, the people there bear a remarkable strength and goodness. They know the value of community and family better than people in any other place I’ve lived (and I’ve lived in more places than most). Of the great many stories I could recount as evidence of this, I’ll mention just one.

On our first Sunday in Mingo County, my family went to Mass at the little cinderblock church of the small Catholic parish in Williamson, West Virginia. After Mass we made our way, along with everyone else, to the cafeteria of the parish’s tiny grade school—a room with space for no more than a dozen folding tables. There the community shared a meal together. Although no public mention had been made of our being new arrivals, so many people approached us to introduce themselves and welcome us that one of my children asked, “Dad, why is everyone telling us their name?” I try not to contrast that with our experiences at other Catholic parishes we’ve joined. I have moved into several small communities as an outsider. While they are often very cozy and nurturing places for those whose families have been around for generations, they are sometimes distant and distrustful toward newcomers (and “newcomers” can mean any family that has arrived within living memory). This was emphatically not the case, on that Sunday or any day after, when my family settled into Mingo County.

But along with the warmth and joy of these memories, I also reread the bishops’ letter on Appalachia with a sense of deep and bitter sadness, aware that poverty, devastation, and exploitation remain issues there still. There are many reasons for this, and anyone who points the finger in a single direction is badly mistaken.

To be sure, the people themselves bear some responsibility for their situation. The acceptance of dire poverty as the inevitable lot of vast numbers of people is far too widespread among them. Interest in education is often minimal. Prescription-drug abuse is rampant. Last year a Salon article dubbed the tiny village of Kermit, West Virginia (population three hundred), “America’s pill-popping capital.”

Even some of the most admirable cultural characteristics of central Appalachia tend to inhibit economic and personal growth. I’m thinking here of the deep rootedness in one’s family and in the land that can prevent people from considering any kind of opportunity, professional or educational, that would take them away from the holler where they grew up. (It is not uncommon for people living in the mountains of central Appalachia to bury family members on their own property. It is a remarkable expression of family solidarity. But how can a person think about selling one’s land when it includes the graves of loved ones?)

But there is much more to Appalachian poverty than personal responsibility. Much of it is the lingering effect of more than a century of exploitation by powerful people and businesses from inside and outside the region. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the development of a vast company-town system, in which coal-mine operators paid their miners in scrip that could be used only at company stores. The coal bosses used violence and intimidation to prevent unions from taking hold. For many decades, large corporations based outside the region have extracted Appalachia’s natural resources, made enormous profits, and left local workers with little to show for their labor.

This exploitation is the root of Appalachian poverty, but too many regional and local political leaders remain in thrall to the coal industry, insisting against all evidence that reliance on coal production is the only way forward for local economies. In his inaugural address in January 2013, for example, West Virginia governor Earl Ray Tomblin promised to focus on increasing coal production, though nearly all experts expect that the demand for coal will continue to decline. Tomblin and other prominent state political and business leaders insist on framing any efforts to protect the environment from the disastrous effects of coal mining as a “war on coal” and the people who mine it. Despite the fact that natural gas has been a much cleaner, safer, and cheaper option for energy production for some years, it is always the Environmental Protection Agency that is blamed for coal’s recent decline.

Powerful coal-company executives continue to bust unions and shirk safety regulations in order to increase profits. There is ample evidence that the latter activity, and probably the former, contributed to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of April 5, 2010, which killed twenty-nine workers in Raleigh County, West Virginia. (See the conclusions of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health panel’s March 2012 report [.pdf] on the incident.)

Those same executives have convinced locals that their job security depends on the use of mountaintop removal mining (MTR), a technique that not only destroys the mountains that make this region so beautiful but also causes serious health problems for the people of Appalachia. Studies have documented higher levels of birth defects, cancer, and cardiovascular disease among those who live near MTR sites, where there are high concentrations of selenium in ground water and of sulfur and silica in the air. Even as poverty makes the people of Appalachia desperate for any work they can find, the only available work is hurting their health, which in turn exacerbates their poverty.

Too many public school administrators and teachers in the region have minimal expectations for students. (This is one reason my wife and I, who have several young children, decided not to stay in the region.) In 2010, only 17 percent of the graduating seniors from one Mingo County high school went on to college, despite the many federal, state, and private grant programs available to low-income students.

In This Land Is Home to Me, the U.S. bishops insisted that “the truth of Appalachia is a judgment upon us all.” After briefly recounting the development of Catholic social teaching, they wrote:

in a profound sense
the choices are simple
and stark:
- death or life;
- injustice or justice;
- idolatry or the Living God.
We must choose life.
We must choose justice.
We must choose the Living God.

The truth of Appalachia is still a judgment on us all. It is one of the most extreme examples of this country’s continuing willingness to let big companies treat whole communities, whole regions, as nothing more than a source of cheap labor and valuable commodities. We can do better. We can, and must, choose justice.

Barry Hudock is the author of several books, including Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching (Liguori).

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