With rural poverty remaining a persistent problem in the US, sociologists Billings (Univ. of Kentucky; Planters and the Making of a “New South,” not reviewed) and Blee (Univ. of Pittsburgh; Women of the Klan, not reviewed) offer an ambitious history of an Appalachian county in order to understand “how places grow poor.”
“Culture-of-poverty” theory explains Appalachian economic backwardness as a result of cultural backwardness; “internal colonialism” views Appalachia as a region exploited for its natural resources, especially coal, by outside economic forces. While acknowledging the merits of both approaches and utilizing them, the authors also find both wanting in that Appalachia is presented as a place without a history. Yet how did a culture of poverty develop; what made it possible for Appalachia to become an internal colony? To answer these questions, Billings and Blee develop a remarkably detailed history of an impoverished county in Appalachian Kentucky from 1850 to 1910. Building on the research of James S. Brown and using everything from census records to court documents, the authors show how economics, culture, and politics interacted to create patterns of poverty that persist to this day. Early industrialization based on slave labor allowed for the creation in the county of a powerful elite whose influence was maintained through labyrinthine kinship ties and through the hegemonic control of local politics. Most of the rest of the white population engaged in subsistence farming, which became ever more precarious as population pressure came to bear on a limited amount of land. Here, too, kinship ties developed as means of survival and at times resistance to elite domination. Too often, however, elite dominance kept the poor in a dependent situation. Feuds, for instance, usually thought of as typically backward Appalachian behavior, were actually elite conflicts in which the poor were enlisted to fight. In brief, then, the complex and dynamic interaction of diverse forces prepared Appalachia for chronic poverty long before the present era.
Skilled history from which interested readers and policy makers can learn much.
(For a firsthand account of life in Appalachian Kentucky, see Linda Scott DeRosier, Creeker.)