Persistent Poverty in the Appalachian Region

Fahe is on a mission to eliminate persistent poverty in Appalachia.  Since 1980 we have helped 687,183 people with housing and community development.  We believe that everyone has the right to the opportunity of a better life.  By working with national, regional, and local leaders (including our Membership), we are working to uplift Appalachia and bring resources and opportunities to families.

Many people don’t fully understand what persistent poverty means or the extent to which it shapes people’s lives.

On December 15, 2017, the United Nations issued a report focused on poverty in America. The report made devastating claims for Southern states and Appalachian communities, directly naming Alabama and West Virginia as two of the most extreme regions of poverty in the Developed World. One 2017 report documented the return of Hookworm—a parasite thought to be eradicated in the U.S. for decades—in Lowndes County, Alabama. A reporter from the United Nations’ tour of American Poverty claimed, “The United States is one of the world’s richest and most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.” We know that extreme poverty exists in certain regions of the United States—but so few lawmakers and organizations seem to know what to do about it.

What is Persistent Poverty?

Persistent poverty is the classification of a region that has existed in perpetual poverty for several decades. Public Law 114-187, enacted by Congress in June of 2016, defines a county in persistent poverty as “any county that has had 20 percent or more of its population living in poverty over the past 30 years, as measured by the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses.” Most of these counties are located in the Southeast and Appalachia, documented in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission’s research: Of the 420 counties that make up their regional definition of Appalachia, 84 counties are distressed and 115 are “at-risk” of being classified as distressed. Beyond data representing current levels of poverty in entire states, the Rural Poverty Research Institute notes that counties categorized under the definition of persistent poverty are geographically concentrated and disproportionately rural.

A county’s classification under these terms brings even greater obstacles to its communal growth. Under the Rural Poverty Research Institute’s study, the median household income for a persistent poverty county is $31,212 with an unemployment rate of 11.8%, compared to a never high poverty county’s median income of $54,737 and unemployment rate of 7.7%. Racially, counties with persistent poverty are overwhelmingly made up of minorities, with the average 44.6% people of color, opposed to 18.7% people of color in never high poverty counties.

The economic indicators of poverty are clear. High poverty areas statistically show low educational attainment, low median household incomes, high unemployment rates, and are disproportionately made up of people of color. Compounded with the historical weight of decades of economic depression in a particular area, counties classified under these terms pose a significant challenge for policy and development interventions. In Steven Stoll’s 2017 study of the region entitled Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, he claims, “Nonetheless, most development thought insists that the poor and hungry of the world…will be saved by somewhat different versions of the same thinking that made them poor in the first place.” Without a communal approach, Appalachia’s poverty will remain an “ordeal.”

In the United Nations report, Philip Aston claims, “In September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans were living in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population). And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.” Much like persistent poverty counties, where the region’s poverty tends to be several decades old, people who are classified as “in poverty” are more than likely to be classified in “deep poverty.” The solutions to these statistics proposed by the United Nations echo precisely the community-oriented approach so often proven to be successful. Their solutions include “democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality and respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies, and environmental justice.” In other words, to eliminate persistent poverty in counties across Appalachia and the rural South, direct social advocacy and accessible social services are our only weapons.

Steven Stoll’s study of Appalachia concludes with an optimistic message. He claims that any solution to persistent poverty in the region must “require the knowledge of people who live in the mountains and the sponsorship of organizations and activists working on these questions.” Appalachians and Southerners working together to connect each other to the services needed to prosper should—must—eradicate persistent poverty among America’s most vulnerable families.

Want to Make a Change in Appalachia?

Fahe and our Members are on the frontline of change in Appalachia.  As a backbone institution we have a deep relationship with local communities which allows us to offer needed expertise and deliver resources to where they provide the greatest good.  Partnering with Fahe is the best way to ensure your funding and investments are being maximized to provide the greatest benefit for change.