I read an article yesterday in the May issue of the Ladies Home Journal about the plight of the families living in Appalachia. It is a devastating picture of an America that I have never known and hopefully neither will my children, at least not from personal experience. I was shocked to read about a rural area of Kentucky that has more than three times the national poverty rate and that in most areas of Appalachia more than 70% of school aged children qualify for free lunches. And this isn’t a recent statistic. The article Children of the Mountains Struggle to Survive from ABC’s 20/20 2009 archives shows the same statistics and then some. And according to the Appalachian Poverty Project there are parts of Appalachia where less than 62% of adults have high school diplomas and less than 10% have college degrees.
There was a family highlighted in this article. The mom and dad are concerned how they are going to get their next meal, can’t afford health care and have no idea how they are going to pay for college for multiple children. I have to admit, I was angry at first. My heart has ached for a third child but between my tendency to go into pre-term labor and a desire to provide a financially secure future for the two children I do have, we have chosen to take precautions to not procreate. A conscious, responsible choice. And yet, this family, like so many others in poverty-stricken areas, made a very different choice. Their state of poverty did not materialize due to some unforeseen crisis, but was present from their own childhood. Neither parent has an education beyond high school and will never make more than minimum wage. So although I understand the first child was not planned, how do you explain the second and even third?
I spewed chunks of frustration at DW last night.
“Why in the world would a parent choose to bring a child into such a dire situation?”
“Do people really think that having more children can somehow positively impact the future when there is no hope for providing much of a future? ”
He was silent, letting me vent, turning over each phrase of condemnation that I spat. And then he spoke.
“It matters not how or why people end up in such terrible conditions. What matters is how we respond to their need and help change those conditions to break the cycle. We as a society should take more responsibility for the communities that we are a part of, especially if we are in a position to help more than others.”
I suppose he is right. Most people have families out of a desire to pass on their ancestry and to create an environment of unconditional love. We have families for companionship and a sense of purpose. I know that I had children because I wanted to love something outside of myself and of course there is part of all of us that has a strong desire to be loved back. Even in the darkest hour, there is no other feeling than the soft touch of a child’s kiss on your cheek or any greater joy than hearing the words, “I love you, Mommy”.
So what is the answer? I don’t know, but it is obvious that poverty begets poverty and there is no way out of it without the support and help of outside influences. This region of America goes beyond even the poverty that families here in the Detroit area experience. The families of Appalachia are living in Third World conditions. In some of the most tragic areas there are no roads, sewer systems or schools. And in some cases, this level of poverty is greater than three generations deep.
These children need health care, an education and safe living conditions. These parents need vocational training and parenting classes. These families need more than just a carrot dangling in front of their faces, more than the dream of better futures, they need a plan that includes a call to action beyond what they can do for themselves. They need grace and compassion.
They need help.