I'm late to the game on this one – a bizarrely not-terrible NRO piece about Appalachia called the "Big White Ghetto", which any visitor to eastern Kentucky or West Virginia can confirm it most certainly is. It's a good, predictable "Yep, poverty is pretty awful" piece that does a good job of exploring why these areas are so screwed; namely, skilled workers leave because there are no jobs and no jobs will come because there are no skilled workers.

Imagining the average National Review reader walking through this piece is entertaining, as though what rural Kentucky really needs is Mitt Romney and Sean Hannity to show up and tell everyone to hurry up and start a small business. Isn't that always the answer to everything? Well, that and tax cuts. And even Republicans realize that there aren't enough tax incentives in the world to get someone to create a bunch of jobs in a remote, dilapidated coal town. The small business fetish – It's at once a panacea for what is wrong with America and a symbol of all that is great about it – is funny when placed in this context.

If you wanted to open a small business in the town described in that article, what would it be? Are you going to open a restaurant or coffee shop? Clothing boutique? Artisan manufacturing? No, you're not going to do any of that in a town where half the population is living on $500/month in government assistance. You're going to open one of the businesses you see in poor, run-down neighborhoods everywhere: bar/liquor store, pawn shop, convenience store, or payday lender. The only way you could make any money off of a small business in this place would be to do something that exploits the hopelessness, ignorance, and desperation of the people who haven't had the ability or good sense to leave.

Talk about vicious cycles; in the perfect conservative dream world, all of these people pull themselves up by the bootstraps and, since there are no jobs to be had even for the skilled and motivated, start their own businesses. And the only ones who succeed will be those who sell something that perpetuates the world of poverty, substance abuse, petty crime, and hopelessness in which they live. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that the residents just voted to legalize alcohol sales in the formerly "dry" county. Talk about growth industries.


  • Middle Seaman says:

    Beg to differ. You can move a military base to a poor area. That's a business that doesn't need to make profits, but needs services.

    The government can do a lot to lower local poverty, but it couldn't care less. Republicans get the votes already. Why even bother. Democrats don't care about these poor people either. They will not get the votes no matter what.

    The left doesn't care because it's way too arrogant to deal with poor people and too biased to pay attention to people that are white, not Muslims or not middle class.

  • You have a point there. The US desperately needs more useless military bases.

    It would be easier (and probably cheaper) to just give the people in that area a yearly check for living in a rotting sinkhole. Actually investing in a thing that is needed would probably be an even better choice

  • Wow, Middle Seaman, that's a very broad brush you're painting the left with. Has it escaped your notice that it's been the left, since at least the 1960s, who have been the ONLY ones to care about the poor–white and non-white?

  • The left doesn't care because it's way too arrogant to deal with poor people and too biased to pay attention to people that are white, not Muslims or not middle class.

    Dude, it's not that the left doesn't care. We're just too black or too brown, too gay, too educated, too multilingual, and too non-Christian for them. They'd rather listen to Sarah Palin than to us.

  • Southeastern Ohio is in the same boat. It's geographically, culturally and economically very similar to West Virginia. Most of the industry that used to be there has packed up and left.

    My in-laws all live down there and I dare say not one of them has an ounce of ambition. None of them want to leave, but there are no decent jobs to be had down there.

    They all seem to think that Columbus (where I live) is some big bad concrete jungle straight out of "Taxi Driver" or "The Warriors". Apparently when you live in a county of 15,000 people all the local news talks about is when someone in the nearby city gets shot.

    I can understand not wanting to leave your support network, but a person has to make a living first and foremost.

  • @ Middle Seaman: That's pretty funny! You're so funny. The only options for the poor are the military and/or the bottle. The poor (and immigrants who wish to be "fast tracked" to citizenship) are already fighting the wars; no need to bring the bases to them when they're going to the bases.

    No, what these folks in the Big White Ghetto need is a privately run prison. There's a frigging growth industry there.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "I can understand not wanting to leave your support network, but a person has to make a living first and foremost."

    Major Kong,
    So, to make a living, Americans should move to China and India? ;-)

  • You skipped pharmacies in your list of small business opportunities. Much of my family lives in rural Appalachia and in many of the towns near them the only buildings/businesses that look consistently prosperous and new are the pharmacies. And they have LOTS of pharmacies for rather small towns.

  • Just film the residents engaged in "activities of daily living" and make them reality TV stars on Destitution Dynasty. Exploitative fascination levels increase, ratings go up, endorsements follow, and rural Kentucky becomes a tourist mecca. Problem solved.

  • Not to sound like Sam Kinison's rant about world hunger, but maybe the government could relocate them someplace more economically active. Return the dilapidated town back to nature. The government could even train the young and offer the old a bonus to their Social Security checks as an incentive. It would certainly be cheaper than a military base and help at least on a small level the environment.

  • It's well-researched but the condescension and determination to ignore causes and potential solutions is pretty amazing.

    The throwaway line that stuck with me was this:

    Kentucky is No. 19 in the ranking of states by teen pregnancy rates, but it is No. 8 when it comes to teen birth rates, according to the Guttmacher Institute, its young women being somewhat less savage than most of their counterparts across the country.



  • Williamson gets the dead-end tone right, but he has to make fundamental misattributions throughout, starting with the assertion that poor rural whites took over the bottom-of-the-totem-pole position from enslaved blacks. Uh, no. There never were large populations of slaves in Appalachia, as there were no large plantations that could use slave labor effectively. The region always belonged to poor whites, starting with the trappers, foragers, and hunters, then transitioning to loggers and miners and subsistence farmers. West Virginia seceded back to the Union side after Virginia joined the Confederacy 'cause they didn't have enough slaves to fight over.

    Williamson completely ignores the loss of the tobacco subsidy program, which made a hell of a lot of small farms in this area profitable. Now they're not.

    He also slips in a sentence that invites the reader to believe that UPS and FedEx don't deliver to these rural hellholes, which is straight-up false. You might not be able to get overnight shipping if you're too far from an airport, but cardboard boxes will still show up on your doorstep.

    I've no idea why he felt the need to be deceptive. It's not like one needs to exaggerate to make rural Appalachia look bad.

  • One major problem with any effort to revitalize areas of poor Appalachia is lack of reliable internet access.

    I've actually looked into locating a business in one of the depressed WV towns referenced in the article. (I'm not gonna lie; it was to take advantage of relatively cheap labor costs.) But for internet access, we were looking at dial-up or satellite, neither of which are reliable or sufficient for my purposes.

    The lack of infrastructure of all sorts renders those areas essentially the Third World, but any jobs we might try to create there would have to be offered at First World standards. I'm not saying the locals should accept Third World wages, but that does mean nobody's going to open a garment factory there anytime soon.

  • Hey, Ed, did you hear about the House GOP retreat last week? Conservative journalist Byron York had a short but revealing report. Eric Cantor made an surprisingly sensible point – the GOP can't keep focusing all their rhetoric on small business owners, because the vast majority of people aren't and don't aspire to be. They just want to earn a decent living, and that's getting harder and harder. Blindingly obvious, you'd think – and yet York reports that the caucus still isn't comfortable with the idea.

    Here's the full item:

    Cantor's always been full of 'reform' schemes that go nowhere, and I'm sure their middle-class agenda will end up being a cardboard decoy, just like the Cantor/Ryan/Paul poverty agenda. At this point, though, I'm relieved to hear that someone in the house GOP has a tether to reality.

  • "He also slips in a sentence that invites the reader to believe that UPS and FedEx don't deliver to these rural hellholes"

    They do deliver there. I've certainly made enough flights into Huntington, WV.

    The "last mile" delivery to the rural customer is often made by……wait for it…….the US Postal Service.

  • My family traces back to Goochland County, VA. Some of them were among the first to cross the Appalachians back when that was forbidden by Royal decree. I am grateful to the ancestor who got the Hell out and started the westward trek that led to the Oregon territory. So very grateful.

  • "The lack of infrastructure of all sorts renders those areas essentially the Third World, but any jobs we might try to create there would have to be offered at First World standards. I'm not saying the locals should accept Third World wages, but that does mean nobody's going to open a garment factory there anytime soon."

    And I'll bet that the roads, power, water and sewage aren't up to high standards, either.

  • The "go it alone start your own business" fetishists always overlook two very important points about starting your own business.

    1) capital upon which to draw to get started in the first place. If you cannot afford to buy a hammer in the first place, you won't go very far as a carpenter. More on this in a minute.
    2) just because someone could go into business for themselves doesn't mean they should. Meaning, these fetishists project certain skills and abilities onto others that they do not have. Running your own concern takes a huge amount of work even for those with the ability. Not everyone can wear the numerous hats that are required to run a small business well. Frankly most people are better off working for someone else.

    Many of these pundit types seem to be "writers". Compared to running a small retail operation or carpentry that's not work. They require having to really think about numerous aspects of the business. Inventory and purchasing, logistics… The list is endless.
    Writing, what? A computer, you can "rent" space at a cafe, bookkeeping is money's in the bank, money's not in the bank. No concern about marking down stock to clear inventory, and logistics involve hitting "send".
    As my parents ran their own retail operation and I worked as a freelance designer I'm in a place to comment. So yeah, bootstrap fetishists, shut it. Writing is not like say, running a frozen yogurt franchise.

    One thing to say about people in these shitty little communities is that many are very good at turning their hands to whatever needs to be done, deliveries, odd jobs, fencing whatever. It's just that these tasks are piece work and the pay is crap—mostly because no one else had any money themselves. As Ed pointed out, if you have any skill or motivation you're gone.

  • The "bizarrely not-terrible" NRO piece was so because it was dealing with white people. If the topic of the story was "blah" people or any other ethnicity, it would have been about how lazy they are and how eagerly they "take".

  • I'm with Xynzee on this, as is so often the case, but I want to pile on the bootstrappers too.

    Their plan works when there is a thriving sector of working poor — people whose indulgences are small, like coffee-to-go on the way to the job site; people who can't afford really good boots and and need to buy a new pair twice per year. If Starbucks can't get a toehold in your town it is dry old times indeed.

    When WalMart puts everyone else out of business with Chinese goods and a workforce on Welfare, I want to ask the bootstrappers to explain how this behemoth is the inevitable result of healthy market competition. Or, in short, how it is any different from the company store and debt bondage.

  • TomW – is this the reason oxy used to be called "hillbilly heroin"?

    Or is the rash of prosperous pharmacies a symptom of significant health problems in general for this population group?

    As to the inability to summon the ambition to – or overcome the fear of – leaving, malnutrition and good ol' fashioned anemia cause mental impairment all by themselves.

    "Why don't they _____________" might be more usefully phrased as,
    "Why can't they ____________"

    If I ever get my hand on a dollar again,
    I'm gonna hang on to it 'til that eagle grins.
    'Cause no-o-o-o-obody knows you,
    When you're down and out…

  • "Pulling themselves up by their bootstraps" is the conservative nightmare.

    What presently exists is pretty close to their dreamworld.

    Either you don't know that or you're being silly.

    Peace and love and… sad

  • But speaking of biz opportunities in impoverished residential areas – what about that idea of letting the Post Office perform simple banking tasks again?

    Seems like a good way to pump a little federal hiring into an area, provide services that earn billions, folks, billions.

    Suck it, UPS and FedEx, you cream skimmers.
    Suck it, banksters, too. Also.

  • Assistant Professor says:

    cekman, the thing about entrepreneurs is that they're like The Troops. You don't have to be one or aspire to be one to be a True American, but you do have to hold them up for a special reverence.

  • Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life has some chewy things to say about the mythos of the mighty "practical"-minded businessman…written almost 50 years ago.

    Probably a good thing he died before Reagan, the Harvard MBA mystique, the deification of Steve Jobs…

  • What kills me about the "Big White Ghetto" is that IS the Republican base. It will never cease to amaze me that people living in abject poverty will go out and vote for the asshole who just took away 90 dollars from their already paltry food stamp allotment.

    And…the entire state of NM is in the exact same position as Appalachia. Yet we are poised to re-elect our asshole Republican governor whose only concern is saving money so the state has plenty in reserves.

  • My wife is from Pennsylvania coal country, and it is pretty much the same as WV, SE ohio, etc. what strikes me is how similar the poor white areas are to the inner cities once jobs disappear. My kindle says I'm about 15% through a book called "when work disappears" about the urban black ghettos and how they got that way not because of drugs or culture but because work AND access to work left. The same thing has happened to coal country. On a side note, here in Dayton a new company is moving into part of the old GM plant that shut down… A Chinese auto glass maker is opening a plant here, with a ton of tax breaks, etc. But the point is that Dayton is so broke, the Chinese are outsourcing HERE.

  • @mothra, I don't get it either. Time after time, the same people keep voting in the Republicans who keep kicking them in the teeth, cause FREE-DUMB! And NO TAXES EVAHHHHHH! (said by the folks who most need the public safety net)

  • Townsend Harris says:

    In rural upstate New York we built prisons to house urban, black, low-level drug offenders. Nelson Rockefeller's drug laws created a lot of the remaining decent-paying corrections jobs held by rural whites. DoC, DoT, SUNY, publicly-funded hospitals, the usual public sector employers.

    I tease old, retired white corrections officers and point out Nelson always wanted "one strike and you're out" for DWI offenders, that as soon as the nigras gain a little more power we're gonna scoop up drunk rednecks and imprison them in newly-built jails in Bed-Stuy, in Harlem, in the South Bronx. We're gonna "Drop the old Roc"" and "Pick up the new Roc'".

  • @ Mo – Yes, prescription drug abuse is very common. My father worked for one of the larger employers in the area before he retired and they had lots of people using drugs on the job. And the last time I called my mom she mentioned that yet another local doctor had been convicted of improperly prescribing narcotics and was off to jail for six years.

    I worry about the quality of healthcare where my parents live, I fear many of the doctors are the type who barely got through med school and wound up there because they didn't have many options. My father had some very serious complications from a surgical procedure a few years back and had to go to the nearest semi-large city for further treatment from a specialist. Based on what they learned over numerous visits to the specialist, it's very likely that the complications were the result of improper/rushed procedure by the nurse who prepped him for surgery. Even worse, the semi-large city specialist couldn't understand why the small town doctor had performed the procedure in the first place, the specialist thought it was completely unnecessary based on the information in the medical records.

  • @Townsend

    When I fly into Stewart/Newburgh airport we stay across the Hudson in Fishkill.

    Fishkill boasts 3 (maybe 4) prisons. As far as I can tell, half the population is locked up and the other half are being paid to watch them.

  • What kills me about the "Big White Ghetto" is that IS the Republican base. It will never cease to amaze me that people living in abject poverty will go out and vote for the asshole who just took away 90 dollars from their already paltry food stamp allotment.

    Sleight of hand. Quietly take away the food stamp allotment while making it look as if the other team is responsible for that, and/or focusing one's speech on any number of other things that *really* matter–like taking food stamps away from the welfare queens, fighting marriage equality, and maintaining the right of god-fearing Christians to keep their ten commandments monuments on public property.

    Oh, and of course the media can be trusted to cooperate, especially now that they've been deregulated and more and more outlets are owned by fewer and fewer wealthy corporations.

  • Living in Atlanta which often is considered "entrepreneur heaven", I came to realize that "entrepreneurs" = salesmen, which means suckers looking for bigger suckers. "Growing businesses" yet managing not to deliver any real value. I don't think I've ever lived in place where people were so incurious and hung up on superficial things. I think that's the America that these characters want.

  • The Appalachians were LBJ's poster region for the War on Poverty. There have been lots of books about the poverty in the area. The New Deal of the 30s is full of photos of starving mine kids and falling down shacks. I read "Night Comes to the Cumberlands" back in the 1960s, a history of the area. It never had much in the way of good farmland, but it did have coal. Unfortunately, resources like coal tend not to do one much good if one simply exports them. It's a common problem. Iran has fuel shortages thanks to the embargo and lack of refinery capacity, not lack of crude oil. Worse than Iran, the coal in the Appalachian coal belt was owned by outsiders, so the best anyone local could hope for was a few bucks for hauling the stuff out of the ground and into a rail car.

  • Coal mining? I read "The Road to Wigan Pier" a while back. Among many other disturbing images, Orwell describes people scavenging a huge pile of mine tailings for hours, in order to collect bits and chips of coal with which to heat their homes. They could not afford to buy it.

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