For many, poverty remains a way of life in the changing region.
Like winters first snow, poverty penetrates deep into Appalachia. And while the quality of life in much of the region has improved over the last four decades, many Appalachian communities, specifically those in Central Appalachia, have been left behind.
The billions of federal dollars that have improved highways, water systems and access to education and job training have been allocated disproportionately, says Ron Eller, professor of history at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and former director for the universitys Appalachian Center.
What we have is the emergence of two Appalachias, says Eller. One reflects a way of life similar to that of the rest of the United States middle class with urban areas, super highways and improved water systems. The other consists of distressed counties where local economies remain challenged, educational levels remain low, and where impoverished families lack access to human and public services.
So while poverty in Appalachia today is much different from the poverty associated with the region in the 1950s and 60s, pockets of it remain, specifically in Central Appalachia.
Comprising parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, Central Appalachia is home to 22 of the 26 Appalachian counties with median incomes below 50 percent of U.S. median income.
In 22 of Kentuckys Appalachian counties, more than 10 percent of occupied housing units are in substandard condition, according to the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit organization that focuses on rural housing issues. Typical substandard units have no running water or indoor plumbing; crumbling foundations; sagging roofs; unsafe wiring or no insulation. They sit precariously on hillsides, along gravel roads and creek banks.
Habitat homeowners Jeff and Tina Hobbs of Beattyville, Ky., for years made their home under such circumstances. At times their situation grew as dim as the naked light bulb that cast shadows across their bare floor. The house lacked insulation, and by the end of last yeara full six months after moving into their Habitat housethey were still trying to pay off a four-month, $1,500 heating bill from the previous winter.
We could feel air coming through cracks in the walls, says Tina Hobbs, as she brushes 2-year-old Rebekahs hair. We had plastic over the windows, had to close off the house and we all slept in the same room because it was so cold.
In their Habitat house, the Hobbs have paid no more than $58 a month for utilitiesincluding heat. They no longer hear animals in the walls, and rest much easier knowing that Rebekah and son David, 10, are secure in a better living environment.
But for every family who has improved its lot through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, many more continue to struggle with a lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, little income and sometimes less hope for anything different.
For so many of these families, its hard for them to hope that things will get better, says Herman Newton, executive director for Lee County Habitat for Humanity in Beattyville. Theyre hard-working people who want to improve life for their children and themselves, but they can get stuck so long in this mold, and they can lose their will.
Lee County, Ky., of which Beattyville is the county seat, is a rural, isolated community where most of the jobs are low-paying service jobs and where residents often must commute two hours or more one way to work. Of the nearly 8,000 people in Lee County, 34.6 percent live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureaus 1997 estimate. This percentage more than doubles the 16 percent for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Forty-seven percent of Lee County children live in poverty, compared with 23.1 percent of children statewide.
Lee County has Kentuckys fourth highest poverty rate. Fifty-seven percent of households earn less than $15,000 per year; 78 percent earn less than $25,000. Many of these families live in dilapidated houses, 423 of which lack complete plumbing and 251 of which lack complete kitchen facilities, according to a county survey.
While the task of serving the need in this region may seem daunting, multiple organizations are successfully doing so, including Habitat for Humanity. The organization is building throughout Appalachia, with some 75 affiliates operating in Central Appalachia alone. In Lee County, the Habitat affiliate has built 10 houses since 1993 and expects to build 10 more in the next five years.
We have to make these improvements one family at a time, says Jim King, executive director for the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, which works with Habitat affiliates and other organizations to provide housing for families in need. People need tools in their toolboxes. They need educational tools and job training tools, and we have to meet families exactly where they are. When a child grows up in poverty, those conditions help shape his future, and we have to be aware of these linkages.
In distressed Appalachian counties, change must come from two directions, according to Eller: People must work to redirect policy makers thinking so that more money will end up in rural communities, and the communities themselves must continue to organize their non-governmental elements to address their own needs.
We have to generate more hope, King says. And to a certain extent, the solution must be homegrown.
So, as poverty lingers in the region like the smell of burning leaves, so does the opportunity to make a difference. And for families like the Hobbs, a decent house makes all the difference in the world.