Appalachia Spring: Will It Ever Come?

As politicians decry region's persistent poverty, people have reasons for hope.

Every weekday, 12 of Brenda Kim's neighbors wake up early so they can get to their jobs in Columbus, Ohio - 55 miles away - on time. It's a big sacrifice, but one that many residents of small-town Appalachia are willing to endure to maintain roots in a region that extend back generations.

"They will suffer the drive five to six days a week to be able to live here," says Ms. Kim, a resident of Chauncey, Ohio, a tiny community in a part of America that has largely defied efforts to turn it into something other than a clich for poverty.

It's a story familiar to many in Appalachia. Unable to find good jobs with good pay in their hometowns - and unwilling to leave the schools and street corners that have shaped their lives - many are forced to either commute to the big city for work or make do with a local low-paying job.

The dilemma is not a new one. Appalachia has long been one of the most economically depressed areas in America. Moreover, income and employment have stubbornly lagged, despite the government's War on Poverty in the 1960s and the private-sector's roaring '90s. Currently, the region is home to roughly one-quarter of the nation's poorest counties, and jobless rates are more than triple the national average.

But even amid these gloomy statistics, there is cause for cautious optimism. Some of it surfaced this past weekend, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a march here to bring national attention to the region.

Many say the mountains of dollars invested in Appalachia over the years - and a heightened emphasis on education - are helping the region reach beyond a history based wholly on the land, which yielded salt, coal, and timber. While much work lies ahead, residents hope a new entrepreneuring ethic, combined with the traditional ties to the land and community, will bring prosperity in the not-too-distant future.

"There's a positive feeling, but there's also a feeling that there's a long way to go," says Marsha Lewis of the Institute for Local Government and Rural Development in nearby Athens, Ohio.

The road ahead

Central Appalachia faces the longest road. Although the poverty rate across the region has been halved to 15 percent since 1965, some pockets have been left behind, with little chance for economic development. In parts of Tennessee, West Virginia, and southern Ohio, "most communities ... do not have sewer systems," says Russell Tippett, dean of the school of natural resources at Hocking College here.

Indeed, the region's dependence on extraction industries has left it with almost no infrastructure for business. Roads were ignored as companies relied on barges to send coal or timber to market, office and industrial parks were never developed, and workers needed to have only a minimum education. The result, says Mr. Tippett, is a society that only now is finding ways to make itself attractive to businesses.

"The infrastructure to attract industry ... is better than it's ever been, and it's getting better, but it's still not here yet," he says.

Yet some people here don't see bringing in big industry as the best way to attract precious jobs to the region. One attendee of the Nelsonville march says investment needs to focus on the region's strengths.

"You build hope by making small, solid steps for change," says Debbie Phillips. "There's a lot of indigenous knowledge here," she says, citing crafts, furnituremaking, and farming.

Many experts agree. In fact, much of the investment in Appalachia today is supporting home-grown business ventures that play to the region's strengths.

Drawing on strengths

One of Appalachia's greatest assets, residents say, is the people themselves. Given improved transportation, sewage systems, and tools to produce, the people will make the region prosper, says Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Human Services.

"These people are not out there demanding," he says. "They firmly believe they should be self-sufficient."

This depend-on-yourself sufficiency has always been a characteristic of the people of Appalachia, but today, many observers say, they're also learning to help themselves. "There are more progressive views on the need for education," says Tippett. "People are seeing what they want to do and realizing that they need an education to do it."

As for Ms. Kim, she hopes more of her neighbors get jobs nearer to home in the future - because jobs, not welfare, are the key to Appalachia's prosperity.

"My only hope for this area is more business development," she says. "If we don't get it, things aren't going to get much better."

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