They Are Just like the Rest of Us, Only with a Bigger Home: Spatial Integration of Socio-Economic Classes in Rural Mingo County, West Virginia

Article excerpt

This paper examines the extent of economic segregation (ES) in rural Mingo County, West Virginia. Most studies of ES focus on large urban areas and are quantitative in nature, but because of the weaknesses of traditional quantitative techniques, I turn to qualitative analysis in this paper. Initial evidence derived from interpretation of the built environment supports the hypothesis that Mingo County is not highly segregated by socioeconomic status, leading to further probing. Interviews with residents of three small Mingo County neighborhoods are adduced as evidence of real interactions among members of different economic classes. I find that traditional forces of ES are weak and that place-specific factors such as racial and income homogeneity, division of family land, and a culture that promotes a family-like community outside family boundaries generate the spatial integration of socio-economic classes in the county.

KEY WORDS: economic segregation, class, rural, Mingo County, West Virginia

Este articulo examina el alcance de la segregacion economica (ES) en el condado rural de Mingo, West Virginia. La mayoria de los estudios de ES se centran en grandes dreas urbanas y son de naturaleza cuantitativa, pero debido a las debilidades de los tecnicas cuantitativas tradicionales, en este articulo recurro al analisis cualitativo. La eviden cia inicial derivada de la interpretacion de areas construidas apoya la hipotesis de que el condado de Mingo no esta altamente segregado por estatus socio-economico, lo que demanda una investigacion mas profunda. Entrevistas con residentes de tres veeindarios pequenos del condado de Mingo, son asadas como evidencia de interacciones reales entre miembros de clases sociales diferentes. Yo noto que las fuerzas tradicionales de ES son debiles y que los factores propios del lugar, tales como la homogeneidad de raza e ingresos, division de las tierras de la familia y una cultura que promueve una comunidad como de familia fuera de los limites familiares, genera la integracion espacial de las clases socio-economicas en el condado.

INTRODUCTION

John Edwards' 2008 Presidential campaign focused attention on what he called Two Americas--one rich and the other poor--who are "segregated by race and economic status" (John Edwards 2007). The setting of Edwards' personal home seems to illustrate this principle--his 40-hectare (100-acre) North Carolina estate worth an estimated $6 million is shielded by forest and "No Trespassing" signs and sits across the highway from a mobile home park, an abandoned house, and a car repair shop owned by a nearby resident of a single-wide trailer (Carrington 2007; Christensen 2007). The vivid juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, seemingly common in rural Appalachia, attracted my attention during a summer workshop for teachers that I and a colleague conducted in rural Mingo County, West Virginia. Subsequent field work in the county revealed the complexion of the neighborhoods where mixing of rich and poor residents along the same streets presented landscapes challenging preconceived notions of economic segregation in rural Appalachia. While the Edwards' estate represents rural economic segregation similar to a gated community, what I found in Mingo County was not a deep social rift resulting in spatial segregation but a close coexistence of socio-economic classes.

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Despite extensive quantitative research chronicling and measuring pervasive, intense economic segregation (ES) in America, as a resident of the Appalachian region, the built environment I see around me causes me to question the extent of ES here. Figure 1 shows a neighborhood scene in Mingo County, West Virginia where a wealthy family dwells in the relative comfort of a modern upper-middle class home which is adjacent to their poor neighbors living in ramshackle mobile homes. In this landscape, however, there is no visual evidence of residential ES: all residences are in the same hollow with no fences, walls, or signs enforcing exclusivity, subject to the same flooding hazard, paying taxes for and sharing the same public schools and services, and accessing the same amenities. …