Friday, April 06, 2018

Fixing Appalachia may be the first step to fixing America, says leading modern historian of the region

You may know Buzzfeed as the home of pop-culture listicles, but it recently published a thoughtful essay about Appalachia by Ronald Eller, the author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, and professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky.

When most Appalachians voted for Donald Trump in 2016, he writes, liberal pundits made the region a symbol of the nation's broken politics and used it to explain his appeal, while some conservatives said poor Appalachian areas were "white ghettos" of dependency created by liberal policies.

Both sides ignore the real source of Appalachia's well-known problems with unemployment, opioid addiction, health problems and poverty, Eller argues: "Rampant, unregulated free-market capitalism has ravaged the land and people of the mountains since the turn of the 20th century, creating an internal economic colony that provided natural resources for the modernization of the rest of country but left the working-class residents of Appalachia dependent and poor. . . . Efforts to reduce regional poverty over the last five decades, including those of the present, have relied primarily upon the same market-expanding strategies that fueled these inequalities in the first place. They provide a semblance of growth and opportunities for a few, especially those well connected to outside sources of capital, but they do not fundamentally alter the economic, political, and institutional structures that have plagued the region for more than a century."

When those solutions failed in Appalachia, coal country elites told locals that wealthy outsiders, especially federal bureaucrats, were the source of the region's problems, not greed, exploitation or corruption, Eller writes: "This may be the central issue of the Trump era: whether we will continue to blame the people of the region for their own condition, or whether we will acknowledge the need for substantive structural reform nationally and within Appalachia."

Appalachia's problems show the need for nationwide policy change, and fixing Appalachia may be the first step to fixing America, Eller argues.

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