Last week, I may have painted myself into a corner. I made the point that the Upper Cumberland has a long history of drug-or-alcohol-related crime, which I argued was in large part due to the region’s depressed economic conditions down through the years. I said I would explain that this time. That’s going to take a lot more than 600 words, but I’m going to do my best to at least describe the situation in this week’s space.
First, let’s take a look at some numbers. The figures I use here are from the Labor Department, census, and (mostly) the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC does its studies in groups of five years: 2010-2014 and 2015-2019.
At the end of that first cycle, 2014, the number of people below the poverty threshold (or, less than 125 percent of the poverty rate) in the U.S. was 15.6 percent. In Appalachia it was 19.7 percent. During that time, by the way, roughly 41 percent of poor people in the U.S. lived in the South (it is now 44 percent). Within that framework, in Southern states that include Appalachian areas, the Appalachian counties are poorer than the non-Appalachian ones. I could not find the breakdown for Tennessee, but, in Kentucky, the poverty threshold rate, in 2014, was 18.9 percent, compared to the national rate of 15.6, but the Appalachian counties of Eastern Kentucky had a rate of 25.4 percent. Appalachian areas also tend to have higher poverty rates than rural areas in other parts of the country.
The Appalachian poverty threshold numbers are significantly better than they were in 1960, which is when national focus turned to the dire economic straits of this region in the form of several bestselling books and TV documentaries, as well as the attentions of JFK and LBJ - at that time it was 30 percent. The decline has not been consistent, though. If we look at the ARC study that ends in 2019, we see that Putnam County’s rate has gone down significantly - from 18.9 in 2014 to 14.5, and DeKalb’s has gone down slightly, from 18.4 to 17.4. Most of the counties in our region, though, went up in that time - White County went from 16.2 to 17.3. In the same five-year period, the nation, as a whole, dropped from 15.6 to 15.2. In other words, the nation (and Smithville) did a teeny bit better, Cookeville improved by leaps and bounds, and everyone else in our area did worse. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the explosive growth of Nashville, whose population has almost doubled in 20 years. Nashville has become a favored destination for upscale workers - many of whom prefer to commute from a more rural, scenic location. Putnam County’s population has grown by 10 percent in the past decade, and White County’s has grown by 6 percent. Many recent arrivals have brought money with them and are eager to spend it on property, as real estate prices seem to indicate.
Anyway, the point is, we’re poor.
Once upon a time, before the Civil War, Appalachia was not significantly poorer than the rest of the country. There were a lot of subsistence farmers and a diverse range of economic concerns, unlike in the rest of the South, where almost all the attention was on cotton (and the slave labor used to maximize plantation owners’ profits). The war was extremely destructive to our region, of course, but that was true of most of the South. The real economic turning point for Southern Appalachia would come at the end of Reconstruction and in the last two or three decades of the 20th century. The change would come in the name of “progress” - but it was not progress for most people in the area.
There now, I’ve set the stage. Next time I will tell you what that turning point was and what it has meant to White County, the Upper Cumberland, and Appalachia.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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