Saturday, January 18, 2014

Poverty (or not) in the eye of the beholder

Pam Fessler reports today from Appalachia--from Martin County, Kentucky, population 12,743, to be precise.  Fessler notes that we're seeing a lot of Appalachian poverty in the news this month as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.  The headline for her NPR story is "In Appalachia, Poverty is in the Eye of the Beholder," and the gist of the piece is that many residents living in quintessential rural, (and mostly white) poverty don't see themselves as poor--and they get their backs up at media portrayals of them.  She starts by quoting Lee Mueller who, as a young reporter, covered President Johnson's visit to Martin County.
We became kind of the poster child for the war on poverty, and any time somebody wanted to do a story about poor people, we were the first stop.
Mueller points out what lots of poor people who live among other poor people have discovered once they were out and about among the non-poor:  
We knew the region was poor [before LBJ's visit and the media who followed drew attention to it], but there wasn't a stigma to it — to us.  
* * * 
And we were surprised when we went someplace and found out that other people thought we were. 
Fessler continues: 
That's meant some unwelcome attention over the years. News reports of kids struggling to survive among jobless, drug-addicted adults. Trailer homes, surrounded by trash.
To illustrate the defensiveness that residents feel, Fessler quotes Michelle Harless, a high school guidance counselor:
I just ask when you portray us, please don't portray us as ignorant hill folk, I guess.  Because we are educated. We're poor, but we're educated, and everyone's pretty proud. It's not a desolate place where no hope can be found.
Fessler goes on to observe that poverty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  She describes some other folks whose lives sound pretty grim, but notes that they many say they are rich in "things like family and faith," even if the official poverty rate here is very high-- in fact a whopping 35.7%.  

Fessler quotes Owen Wright of the Christian Appalachian Project, a non profit serving the area.  Wright opines that the perceptions of outsiders "hurt the self esteem" of folks like those in Martin County and throughout Appalachia.  
We're probably one of the last few groups that it's still politically correct to make fun of.  It's still OK to tell, you know, hillbilly, redneck jokes.  Once that's been drilled into them for so long, it's easy for them to start believing that themselves. 
Sounds like the sort of stereotype threat as it applies to poor white folks, which I wrote about here.  

Other recent reporting on the anniversary of the War on Poverty is here (especially as related to Appalachia), here, and here.  New York Times coverage has been plentiful, such as here and here and here.  

This story, also out of Appalachia, tells of the benefits poor residents there are already experiencing from the Affordable Care Act.  Recall that Kentucky is one of the states that embraced the ACA with open arms, including the expansion of Medicaid.  Read more about that here.    

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