Appalachia Spring: Will It Ever Come? as Politicians Decry Region's Persistent Poverty, People Have Reasons for Hope

Article excerpt

Every weekday, 12 of Brenda Kim's neighbors wake up early so they can get to their jobs in Columbus, Ohio - 55 miles away - on time. It's a big sacrifice, but one that many residents of small-town Appalachia are willing to endure to maintain roots in a region that extend back generations.

"They will suffer the drive five to six days a week to be able to live here," says Ms. Kim, a resident of Chauncey, Ohio, a tiny community in a part of America that has largely defied efforts to turn it into something other than a cliche for poverty.

It's a story familiar to many in Appalachia. Unable to find good jobs with good pay in their hometowns - and unwilling to leave the schools and street corners that have shaped their lives - many are forced to either commute to the big city for work or make do with a local low-paying job.

The dilemma is not a new one. Appalachia has long been one of the most economically depressed areas in America. Moreover, income and employment have stubbornly lagged, despite the government's War on Poverty in the 1960s and the private-sector's roaring '90s. Currently, the region is home to roughly one-quarter of the nation's poorest counties, and jobless rates are more than triple the national average.

But even amid these gloomy statistics, there is cause for cautious optimism. Some of it surfaced this past weekend, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a march here to bring national attention to the region.

Many say the mountains of dollars invested in Appalachia over the years - and a heightened emphasis on education - are helping the region reach beyond a history based wholly on the land, which yielded salt, coal, and timber. While much work lies ahead, residents hope a new entrepreneuring ethic, combined with the traditional ties to the land and community, will bring prosperity in the not-too-distant future.

"There's a positive feeling, but there's also a feeling that there's a long way to go," says Marsha Lewis of the Institute for Local Government and Rural Development in nearby Athens, Ohio.

The road ahead

Central Appalachia faces the longest road. Although the poverty rate across the region has been halved to 15 percent since 1965, some pockets have been left behind, with little chance for economic development. In parts of Tennessee, West Virginia, and southern Ohio, "most communities . …