, Corbin, KY

February 18, 2009

Poverty is not unique to Appalachia

Shirley Caudill

Diane Sawyer’s “A hidden America: Children of the Mountains” portrays the lives of some of the poorest people in the Appalachians. And although I respect her as an upstanding journalist, I take offense to the fact that television always comes to the mountains of eastern Kentucky when it wants to write such a documentary to make it appear that this problem is unique to Appalachia.

It is NOT.

The reputation has traveled around the world — when I was in Germany they were surprised that I had shoes.

Take a look at Mississippi, which has poverty worse than the Appalachians. Look at Alabama and Georgia, along with parts of Florida. But that’s not all, go to any big city and you will find it there as well.

Having lived three-quarters of a century and traveled and lived around the world, I am compelled to say that this sort of poverty and drug addiction exists in every large city and in most small towns around the world. Not to say that it is OK, by any means!

I grew up near downtown Nashville (Music city, USA) and there are slums where pitiful children with tooth decay and parents with no education live in poverty, subsisting on welfare and hand-outs. Nothing seems to help their sad situation. It is a way of life handed down from generation to generation.

When these trusting people get a medical card and trust the doctor, he should not be allowed to take advantage of the situation and should be careful not to get them hooked on prescription drugs — something I have seen so many times. If he does, he should be held accountable! I could preach on a soapbox about that subject for about a week!

Let’s face it, we cannot fix these travesties in a year or a decade! We have to work on it step-by-step. Some of these people are unaware of their dire situation and as far as they are concerned, they don’t intend to allow outsiders to come in and fix something they feel is not broken.

But here in the Appalachian Mountains, as with the rest of the country, there are positive stories to be told. There are many people who get an education and go on to lead successful lives, bringing up children who become successful as well. They live in nice homes and have a balanced family life, taking their children to the dentist and seeing that they have good medical care, taking them to church, teaching them to have respect for their elders and lauding education.

My husband Jeff grew up in Perry County up in a “holler” with a family of 16 children. He never saw one nickel in his life until he went into the Army and got an education. He had not seen electric lights or running water, but he had a homemaker mother and coal miner father with lots of pride who taught their children a work ethic and Christian values.

My husband’s cousin from the mountains became a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and a professor at a college in North Carolina. Others have become superintendents of school and teachers or professors.

My husband was a first sergeant by the time he was 21 years old and was leading Army troops across Korea, putting down communication lines during the war. He was a troop leader in Vietnam and came out of the military after 22 years and became president of the Optimist Club three times. He retired to sponsor a Junior Optimist Club at a local middle school and work in the community as a mentor of children.

Of the 16 children who made it to adulthood, they left the mountains because of a lack of jobs and went on the be successful men and women with outstanding families.

They were doctors, lawyers, business managers, nurses and beauticians — none of them were addicted to drugs. None of them had “rotten teeth, nor were they ignorant people.

None of them married their relatives or lived on welfare.

Some of them went into real estate and other business ventures that require common sense and public speaking. Others went into the military and came out and got an education. Many of them have their own businesses and are successful in all their endeavors. They all have lovely homes in cities across America.

Nobody should make a blanket statement about the people of Appalachia! That is ludicrous and absolutely absurd! It really gets under my skin when the television cameras come to these mountains and only show slum areas, which exist all over the world.

I know. I’ve been there!

And I have seen so many intelligent, kind, generous people who have become quite wealthy in their own right in Appalachia.

I’m not going to hold my breath and wait until the television cameras come and spotlight those people.

Shirley Caudill of London is a former newspaper editor/publisher and longtime freelance columnist. She is a Nashville native who has lived in Kentucky 40 years. She has six children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren and is married to a retired Army First Sergeant. She can be reached at