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At the Bottom of a Coal Shaft

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September 8, 2021

Samuel McQuillen is a 2021 Visiting Research Scholar, who has been working with the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and Appalshop. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Economics and International Affairs from Lafayette College and is working to complete a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. He was born and raised in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Through his past research and lived experiences, he has developed a passion for studying rural poverty, deindustrialization, and community-centric approaches to development. Outside of academia, he is an avid cook, juggler, and runner. He hopes to contribute to a new paradigm of studying, empowering, and mobilizing local community networks in order to improve human-wellbeing.

Kim Samuel has famously described social isolation as “the feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well, where no one sees your suffering or pain.” For Appalachians, however, isolation may be better understood as sitting at the bottom of a coal shaft.

When discussing social isolation, our minds usually conjure up images of lonesome individuals who are cut off from their communities or families. Though less commonly associated with isolation, entire communities can also be profoundly disconnected from their greater sociopolitical context, despite the strong internal linkages that exist within them. Appalachia—a mountainous coal mining region in the Southern United States that has long been dominated by an exploitative coal industry—exemplifies this dynamic. Against all odds, Appalachians have cultivated a strong sense of heritage that has brought local communities together, despite the pervasive stereotypes that continue to alienate the region from the rest of the United States. 

Appalachians have endured centuries of multidimensional poverty due to exploitative power structures that are deeply embedded into the region’s extractive past; Appalachian counties, for example, rank amongst the highest in the United States for addiction, suicide, chronic disease, illiteracy, incarceration, and material poverty. Overwhelmingly, Appalachians’ deprivations can be traced to structural causes—such as a severe lack of infrastructural, health, and educational spending—whose roots can be traced back to the coal industry and its resounding harm to the mountains’ bureaucracy, ecosystem, and reputation. In spite of the clearly structural underpinnings of Appalachian poverty, the American public continues to systematically overlook the severe deprivations that plague the region. 

The Appalachian water crisis exemplifies the American public’s apathy towards the mountains’ plight. Across the Appalachian states of West Virginia and Kentucky, hundreds of communities are even today unable to safely drink their tap water due to pollution that can be traced to toxic runoff from abandoned coal mines. Unlike the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that has rightly attracted outrage from public officials, celebrities, and the media alike, the Appalachian water crisis has garnered no such national support, despite its massive geographic scale and incalculable harm. Appalachia’s isolation from the greater United States is thus not only symbolically and socially harmful, but it also exacerbates other aspects of multidimensional poverty by preventing the region from exerting nationwide pressure onto its representatives or attracting federal resources. Even in the few instances where the US government has mobilized resources to address poverty in the regions, Appalachians’ voices have been chronically excluded from guiding these policy initiatives, and they have been instead supplanted with top-down approaches that have, unsurprisingly, failed to ignite any meaningful change. 

Despite being largely ignored by the rest of the country, Appalachians have successfully self-mobilized in order to fight against poverty across the mountains. Rather than passively awaiting the help of outsiders, Appalachians have themselves addressed the water crisis by digging new wells in target locations, while also lobbying local public officials to formally address the issue. Far before the Appalachian Water Crisis, Appalachians had famously fought against exploitative coal corporations through explosive conflicts that have been instrumental in establishing safety and ecological regulations for the mines. Indeed, the Appalachian mountains have been the site of countless grassroots efforts that have similarly leveraged Appalachians’ connectedness in order to autonomously combat various dimensions of poverty at a local level. 

Overwhelmingly, Appalachian isolation is therefore not a matter of personal seclusion, but instead a consequence of the region’s severe alienation from its greater national context. The region’s collective isolation may have prevented Appalachians from garnering support or solidarity from outside groups, but it has been unable to suppress Appalachian-led social movements from mobilizing their communities to address poverty across the region. 

Rather than being alone at the bottom of a well, Appalachians may instead be understood as collectively stuck at the bottom of a coal shaft, deeply connected to one another but nonetheless profoundly cut off from the surface. Despite being metaphorically far underground, Appalachians have successfully raised their voices to collectively advocate for their own rights; if we want to simultaneously fight Appalachian poverty and foster national connectedness, all we have to do is listen.