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More harm than good?

You’re going to want to discuss this one – it’s from NCR(eporter), and it’s a rather startling, honest reflection on a year spent working with the Christian Appalachian Project in eastern Kentucky.

(Comments closed, though, ’til Wednesday night. You know how it is. Control freak here.)

The writer spent a year volunteering, and came away with some uncomfortable impressions. First, that the "war on poverty" had created a culture of dependency among the people whom she knew, a culture that was deep and strong, forty years on.

She also ends up feeling ambivalent about CAP itself, wondering why family members weren’t doing for their elderly members what it had fallen to CAP volunteers to do, and concluding that the whole thing was piecemeal and couldn’t really solve anything.


But after a year there, I became convinced that the Christian Appalachian Project is not going to change anyone’s life, and in fact in some cases it will only perpetuate dependence and poverty. Instead of somebody like me teaching GED, what Kentucky needs is better schools. Instead of employment with the Christian Appalachian Project, Kentuckians need more job opportunities and improvement in those jobs that are already available. Kentucky needs more people who are appalled at mountaintop removal, the successor to strip mining (although much worse), rather than people who seem to feel they are helpless to do anything about it.

Some have called Kentucky the Third World of the United States, and in many ways it is. The state is rich in natural resources that are being removed and are benefiting others, not the local people. The people here are given meager government aid to keep them quiet, and they, like people we have seen in poor countries, believe that they can do nothing to change their situation.


Nor can Christian Appalachian Project volunteers. Only the people of Kentucky themselves can change things, and if the organization gets involved, it becomes that dirty word, “political.” Some donors will probably stop giving money if the volunteers and their participants start marching to Frankfort to protest the poor schools, the roads that are constantly being destroyed by overloaded coal trucks, the sludge from the mountaintop removals that poisons their rivers and destroys their homes.

Once again we are discovering what we found in Mexico: It is the people themselves who must change things. Kentuckians must be upset enough to want to change their own lives.

One of the things that struck me when I came here to Kentucky was how lacking in dreams and ambitions the people of Kentucky are. It is almost as if the hills limit their views of the world as well as their own horizons. Now there is something very good about being willing to live simply and without desire for material gain. But it is sad to see so much unused talent, so much that is so good lost.


As in Third World countries, the local religious groups tend to support a quiescent lifestyle. The vast majority of people are believers, going to a variety of churches, most of which are of an evangelical, Pentecostal or fundamentalist sort. They believe that God has a plan and provides for everything. I have known people who would not even look for jobs, trusting that God will make one available when and if the time is right. Others expect God to provide a home for them, as if God is a real estate agent. Whatever happens, they believe, is God’s plan. This has the effect that people do not strive to change or improve, only to accept.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I spent six weeks volunteering in Harlan. It was an eye-opener, and to tell the truth, some of my impressions were echoed in this article. I really didn’t understand why poverty, for so many we encountered, seem to require living amid trash. We had several elderly people whom we helped (on the side -our main project was running a VBS) who had family in the area, but had been essentially abandoned by them. I didn’t get it.


But it was complex – 80% unemployment will do that to you. The part of this piece that doesn’t resonate with me is what seems like a fairly slashing arrogance towards the East Kentucky natives who aren’t as smart or spiritually sophisticated as the writer. But that’s a part of the culture down there, as well – the church that hosted the volunteers was pastored by a lovely old Irishman, but the congregation was mostly Yankee transplants – the town’s physicians, lawyers, and so on – who were none too pleased when an elderly couple came in from the country, curious to see what this Catholic business was all about. The talk amid the parishioners mostly concerned their smell.  That one, I’ve never forgotten.


I don’t argue with every jot of this article, for there is truth in it – but what are the sources of fatalism? Of parochialism? I drive through Kentucky all the time. I have family connections there. I have good friends there – it is a state that is a combination of high sophistication and this dire poverty. I am not so sure what to make of it all the time myself.

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+ Alan

posted June 2, 2006 at 11:12 am

Hey Amy – thought I’d leave some of my e-mail as a comment here too – hope that’s OK.
So small the world of man – ha. I was interested in that article and your commentary. I’m a native Kentuckian. As a matter of fact, I’m from Harlan and was baptized and was a part of Holy Trinity Church where you likely did your volunteer work. It sounded familiar. I’m thinking the “Irish” priest was Fr. Fogarty – I knew him well, died too young, in his 60’s.
Actually most of the parishioners there were descendents of Italian coal miners (some Polish as well) from the turn of the century. A few may have been “yankee transplants” – couple of doctors, but most were native. And a few converts, me being among them. I have great memories of that place. It’s still there – a Franciscan brother is pastoral administrator now and the school recently closed, sadly.
I wanted also to say, having also done volunteer work in college – with some CAP people (knew Fr. Beiting breifly as a boy) – that there is often an odd perspective that people get of Kentucky, even of Eastern Kentucky, when they come in for a short time from the “outside.” There are certain cultural mindsets about what it means to be “poor” that end up being laid over what they see here. It doesn’t always fit. I don’t totally disagree with the premise of the article either, but I do feel a little queezy at the implications that all Kentucky is some sweltering heap of destitute poverty. Again, I was born in Harlan, as were my family before me for nearly 200 years.
My grandfathers on both sides were coal miners and their families were what some people would have called “poor” – but not really. I’ve said this many times, if you have a hog to kill every year and can eat your own home-grown vegetables, you’re not truly poor. I like to call it “subsistence poor” – you have enough but not what people in the wider culture would see as sufficient for the lifestyles they lead or would want to lead. So, there’s a disconnect there. I think some of the people like this in the mountains have been told they were poor for so long, that some of the problems talked about may partly have been created from without. That’s my Anthropology background coming out there.
Honestly, the deep poverty that IS there, is not as widespread, by far, as it is made out to be. I’ve seen it. I know it’s there. I also know that I grew up there with a Nurse for a Mother and a School Teacher for a Father – regular – middle class, and most people were working to middle class. There were and are some rich folks and there were and are some truly poor people, but “third world” – I don’t think so.
Anyway, just wanted to put my perspective in there. Once again, small world. Peace to you.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 12:15 pm

The vast majority of people are believers…. They believe that God has a plan and provides for everything. I have known people who would not even look for jobs, trusting that God will make one available when and if the time is right. Others expect God to provide a home for them, as if God is a real estate agent. Whatever happens, they believe, is God’s plan. This has the effect that people do not strive to change or improve, only to accept.
You get that sort of fatalism and passivity wherever you have strong predestination beliefs. Calvinism, Jansenism, Islam — if everything is predestined, why bother to do anything? God’s Will…
A writer friend of mine moved from Seattle to Louisville a couple years ago; while trying to settle down with a local (Protestant) church, he found (and had to flee) several with extreme predestination beliefs. Fatalism, passivity, worm theology, despair-in-denial –all in one package. I commented that they’d re-invented Islam, except with “Praise the LORD!” instead of “Allah-u Akbar!” as their praise mantra. You see…
1) If God has predestined everything, why bother to do anything? Except, of course, endure all the crap you get force-fed in life because “God Willed It”. (“Please, LORD, kick me again…”)
2) This easily leads to a “God’s Court Favorites syndrome” being those who DO get all the goodies, again because of “God’s Will”. All opportunities for Pharisaism and spiritual pride duly noted.
3) And the “worm theology” that always seems to accompany extreme predestination? It comes from the attitude that since God’s Will rules supreme, God Is Sovereign to the point of overruling/steamrollering anything and everything “Because The LORD Says So”. And for God to have Supreme Importance, nothing — repeat NOTHING — can be allowed to have any importance whatsoever.
Internet Monk has done a series about the Church in Appalachia, which he has re-linked in his recent post in response to Amy’s posting. One of the things he mentions is Appalachian preachers glorying in their holy ignorance and hatred of “Book Larnin'” and their congregations agreeing: “He’s got NO book larnin’, and HE IS LOUD!”

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posted June 2, 2006 at 1:01 pm

My thought: the poverty and apathy described isn’t just an Appalachian phenomenon. Some of those passages sounded straight out of Ed Banfield’s 1968 classic “The Unheavenly City.” Chapter 6, “Several Kinds of Poverty” is an excellent look at the futility of anti-poverty programs. As he puts it:
“Lower-class poverty…is “inwardly” caused (by psychological inability to provide for the future, and all that this inability implies). Improvements in external circumstances can affect this poverty only superficially: one problem of a “multiproblem” family is no sooner solved than another arises. In principle, it is possible to eliminate the poverty (material lack) of such a family, but only at great expense, since the capacity of the radically improvident to waste money is almost unlimited. Raising such a family’s income would not necessarily improve its way of life, moreover, and could conceivably make things even worse.”

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Julia A

posted June 2, 2006 at 1:21 pm

I just finished re-reading Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. It chronicles the many studies on what causes people to give up hope, and what has been proven to help people change direction. A worthwhile read, if somewhat off the direct topic of Appalachia.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 1:40 pm

Prolly really off topic but a few years ago I read ‘The tragedy of American Compassion’ by Marvin Olasky’ and I thought it was excellent… the human history of taking care of the poor was fascinating. One thing today is that a big difference from yesterday is that we don’t really demand accountability of the recipients – which I think creates angst on both the givers and the givees and creates a kind of dependence on one another although for different reasons (not good).

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posted June 2, 2006 at 1:42 pm

Let me also suggest that a sense of entitlement is not a phenomenon of poverty, but perhaps deeply woven into the American sensibility.
Europeans felt entitled to take land and resources away from the North American people. The notion of a coast-to-coast destiny (a lot of the land in between was free or dirt cheap) is part of our nation’s myth.
And today, are not politicians catering to the feelings of entitlement of those who would prefer not to bid on government contracts, those who like their fuel cheap, those who like better tax deals (especially businesses looking for sweet no-tax set-ups in some municipalities)?
This has the whiff of a self-congratulatory rant on the immoral laziness of the poor, when in fact, it might just be symptomatic of an American malaise.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 2:20 pm

I did a summer in Berea Kentucky in 1996 as a seminarian on a program called AMERC- the Appalachian Resource Education Center. It is now defunct. Thankfully. In my 6 weeks there as well as on a practicum in Booneville I picked up on what I would call a “culture of despair.” Everybody seemed to blame someone else for their problems- the only exception was some of the so called “poor” who as one of the bloggers above noted really are not objectively “poor.” They had enough to eat, a roof over their head and even sometimes a satellite dish! The thing that got me was the religious establishment there wanted to blame all the problems on the evil corporations- and they were a problem- but so was the dependence on welfare, having children out of wedlock, too much drinking and smoking weed and just a general lack of responsibility for one’s life. It is a beautiful and complext area and it has impacted me for the rest of my life. But what really was needed was the preaching and living of the Gospel with integrity. The Catholics I meet down there tened to be rather leftest and liberal, especially the priests and sisters who often were transplanted northerners who were down there to what I call “try out their projects on the poor.” It was a sad exercise in human and spiritual exploitation. Fortunately I think the diocese of Lexington now has a very orthodox bishop who seems to be cleaning house. And Fr. Beiting is one of the rare exceptions down there he is orthodox and loves both the Church and the poor. CAP may have its problems but Fr. now Msgr Beiting stuck me as a holy priest.

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Cathy Koenig

posted June 2, 2006 at 4:08 pm

Ah, the memories. I did a three-week stint at CAP in the summer of 1981, just before I went to grad school. I went with a group of girls sponsored by the Ursuline nuns.
I was a city kid from Queens (Woodhaven), NY, and was totally unprepared for the kinds of poverty I met. Even later on, after I’d worked in some of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn as a teacher, I remember thinking that at least the poor in NYC had running water …
I fell in love with the people and countryside in the short time I was there. We were assigned to the VBS at Our Lady of Mount Vernon in Rockcastle County, and stayed in a small house in the outer part of the town. It was a shock discovering that a “road” could be just a couple of wheel ruts; that sometimes you needed to cross a stream in a car without benefit of a bridge; that if there’s a hole in the floor of the house you need to be real careful where you step; that people spoke of God as naturally as they ate or breathed. The latter was uncomfortable for me for a while, since even my staunchly Catholic neighborhood seemed to view “God-talk” as a sign of looniness or rudeness.
I’m not sure what to make of the author’s attitude about the place. I’m also not sure how effective the program has been. I know that Fr. Beiting viewed the corporal works as a door to the spiritual ones, with the ultimate goal of saving souls.
I was privileged to be there when they were celebrating the anniversary of CAP, and Fr. Beiting celebrated Mass. That, too, was a shock. He was very solidly orthodox, which went totally against my grain at the time. I thank God for him now, though. It must rankle him to know exactly how far from orthodoxy his fellow priests and parishioners have sometimes strayed. I know things were very “touchy-feely” at the Masses and communion services we celebrated in his absence.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 4:22 pm

This has the whiff of a self-congratulatory rant on the immoral laziness of the poor
We’re all being pretty critical of Ms. Fuchs here.
Ms. Fuchs and her husband went to Appalachia to try to help people who felt they needed help (or, why else would they show up for GED tutoring and so forth?). The Fuches did not get paid. Until you, Todd, are willing to follow in their footsteps, I’d suggest that you moderate your criticism.
I didn’t find her article condescending in the least, much less “ranting.” I am left wondering about some of the questions she raised, such as, why an adult child who has the resources cannot or will not take mother to the doctor, relying instead on a stranger, a volunteer, for this. So long as the child can do this job, his or her unwillingness to support a parent in this way would not seem to be excused by material poverty, the behavior of large corporations, the underlying rot in American society, Calvinism or any of the other factors cited here. Ms. Fuchs asks a valid question about this and other similar behaviors.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 5:01 pm

>>>This has the whiff of a self-congratulatory rant on the immoral laziness of the poor, when in fact, it might just be symptomatic of an American malaise.
Garbage. Look at Sweden. You can’t give away stuff for ‘free’ because the price human beings pay is far too high (on both sides – recipients and givers). Most of us have the potential to be lazy and shiftless which is why parents can’t give their kids everything and expect nothing in return.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 6:30 pm

My experience in KY showed me clearly the welfare mentality has been a disaster- particularly on the spiritual level. Giving people a hand-out leads to both material and spiritual childness. Our job as followers of Christ is to call people to God’s radical love and that means utilizing the gifts He blessed you with. As Fr Groeschel points out in his book “There are No Accidents” a very small percentage of people in society are in need of being taken care off because of mental or physical illness; the rest need to be helped to better themselves. The CFR’s set the example in their apostolates. Somehow in much of the social justice ministry in KY things got off track, at least when I was there in 1996. I got the impression it had been going on for decades- this culture of dependency on a hand-out and spiritual despair. I hope things are getting better, but it doesn’t sound like from this article they are, despite Msgr Beiting’s best efforts. The problem may be the bleeding heart liberals working for CAP. Could that be? Remember Msgr. B wanted CAP to be about both the corporeal AND spiritual works of mercy. If we forget the spiritual workds we are only partially helping people since we are not just bodies but bodies and souls. The ministry types I dealt with on AMERC were only about the body. We meet once with a group of nuns who for two hours babbbled on about all the humanitarian works they were doing and not once mentioned JESUS as either their inspiriation or the need for people to have a conversion of heart and life to Him. What is wrong with that picture?

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posted June 2, 2006 at 8:24 pm

I’m also a native Eastern Kentuckian, and I agree with Alan that it’s just not that bad. I also agree that many in Eastern Kentucky wouldn’t consider themselves poor if people from elsewhere weren’t constantly telling them how poor they are.
My mother grew up in Harlan County. She attended schools that were integrated well before integration. Many of her teachers were recruited from urban centers, and all were paid substantially more than other teachers in Kentucky, thanks to supplemental funding from the coal industry. Personally, I’m from a county a few miles away that wishes it was as successful as Harlan. Last I read, it was the sixth poorest county in the whole country. Still, I never saw anyone starve. I never even knew anyone who didn’t have a car. I’ve never been to a Third World country, but if they’re no worse than Kentucky, I suggest you all divert your charitable donations to more worthy causes. I certainly never got sick from coal dust, drank poisoned water, was attacked by a removed mountaintop, or experienced any of the other coal-related atrocities that some seem to believe happen there every day.
So I’m not upset about the horrors of mining, strip or otherwise, because it’s not nearly as ugly as Mrs. Fuchs and others keep telling us it is. Strip mines can be ugly, but no uglier than factories or strip malls. Why should I be appalled that my land is being used, while you build another Starbucks on yours? Why can’t hillbillies use an extraction procedure that’s perfectly accepted (at least tolerated or ignored) in Western states? If you’re sick of looking at your Starbuckses and strip malls, buy a few acres in Eastern Kentucky, move there, pay taxes, get involved in the PTA, and preserve your land all you want. But don’t expect us to be happy about being legislated out of the one industry we were ever really good at, or to treat a real, living community like some Museum of Pre-Industrial America just to pacify somebody’s inner environmentalist.
As for the rest of the sentiments expressed about the societal, spiritual, and moral shortcomings of Eastern Kentucky, I’m honestly surprised. In my field, which is generally 15 years behind the curve in methodological trends, it’s been fifty years since anyone was allowed to get away with judging a culture by comparing it to the dominant one. Would you go to an honest-to-God Third World country and judge them for not wanting the same things you want, or valuing the same things you value? If you’re going to treat Kentucky like an alien culture (which is patently ridiculous anyway), why not respect that culture, rather than denigrating it because it’s not just like yours? That type of anthropology went out with the term “savages.”

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+ Alan

posted June 2, 2006 at 8:52 pm

I like a good bit of what you said Paige. The view of those who have grown up there is many times quite different than those who come in from the outside – especially if they come and stay for a short period of time for a particular purpose. Anthropologicaly speaking, they’ve come into that culture (or subculture) with certain ideas about it already and, in this case, even a mission attached to those ideas. Now, that’s not necessarily wrong, but it is inherently problematic to some extent.
I don’t live there any more, so I can only say so much. When I’m at “home” and I see acid mine drainage in a stream, it bothers me. I understand that’s part of the price paid in that region for industrialization and employment that goes along with it. If we’re going to blame something you might have to go back to the industrial revolution. Oh well. And both my Grandfathers died relatively young as a result of sucking coal dust for 20 or so years each. So, it’s effected me, I never knew either one of them really.
Sure, there are outright lazy people everywhere. Harlan has plenty. But again, from my experience, I wouldn’t characterize the whole reason as lazy and dependent on welfare-type help. There are plenty of people who are, but I would say not nearly the majority – the majority don’t even “need” it.
I hope this hasn’t slid too far off topic. It just sort of hit me as something worth talking about. From my experience with Msgr. Beiting as a boy, I’ve always had a respectful memory of him. He’s still hard at it. And when someone inhabits a people like he has for the last, what is it, 50 years or so, that’s the real deal to me. Hit and run is one thing, that’s fully another.

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