Appalachia’s despair

Toledo Blade - May 27, 2012


Northwest Ohioans are likely to take cold comfort, at best, from the observation that the opposite corner of the state is even more economically challenged than this one. But attention to Appalachian Ohio offers a necessary reminder that even as the state’s economy and employment climate continue to recover, many of our neighbors in need risk getting left behind and staying there.

A recent special report in The Blade notes that while the greatest concentrations of poor people in Ohio live in central cities such as Toledo, the state’s highest overall poverty rates are found in 10 rural Appalachian counties in southern Ohio, near the borders with West Virginia and Kentucky.

The economically isolated region is plagued by a variety of ills: joblessness, drug trafficking and addiction, industrial pollution, poor educational achievement, decrepit housing, inadequate public transportation, high incarceration rates, and a lack of healthy food choices. Many of the residents whom reporter Ignazio Messina talked to expressed resignation bordering on hopelessness.

This is nothing new; Appalachia’s extreme poverty has been the topic of political campaigns, scholarly study, and corrective legislation for more than a half-century. Today, though, the mining and manufacturing industries that once provided some jobs that could support families, if not nearly enough, are largely gone and won’t be back. People who were able and motivated to move to big cities mostly have done so by now.

At the same time, poverty and income inequality have declined in salience as political issues. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney asserted this year that he was “not concerned about the very poor because we have a safety net, and if it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”

That will require more than off-the-cuff assurances. Social service providers in Appalachian Ohio say that federal and state budget cuts have reduced both the number of government-supported jobs and the availability of essential services — such as food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, cash assistance, and child care — in the region.

Many of those cuts directly afflict children. Emergency services such as food pantries can do only so much to compensate, providers say.

A new study by Policy Matters Ohio concludes that both work and the safety net of government programs that Mr. Romney breezily extols are doing less to help enable Ohioans to meet basic needs than they once did, in Appalachia and Toledo and everywhere else.

The services that offered poor Ohioans a hand up to a middle-class lifestyle are disappearing, the study says. Even during a period of economic recovery, poverty rates remain high, wages are stagnating, job-related health and retirement benefits are eroding, and too many working families can’t make ends meet.

The advocacy group calls for a new social contract that ensures opportunity and security through such measures as expanded availability of affordable health care and a stronger safety net.

But such prescriptions run counter to efforts in Columbus and Washington to eliminate or slash even successful programs to help struggling families that cost relatively little. At the same time, tax cuts and breaks that benefit the wealthiest Americans continue to expand.

What are the potential implications of such divergent policies? Appalachian Ohio may suggest an answer — and it isn’t a hopeful one.

Appalachia’s despair

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