Do Helping Hands in Appalachia Do More Harm Than Good?
Fuchs, Lucy, National Catholic Reporter
My husband, Frank, and I have just spent a year trying to serve the poor of Appalachia, well known as one of the less advantaged parts of this country. We came about this work from the outside in. About 10 years ago, we spent two years working with the poor in Mexico. During that time, NAFTA passed, the war in Chiapas started and the peso went down in value. We saw the poor in Mexico get poorer than ever.
We knew that the poverty in Mexico was not something we could fix through our small efforts. One thing Mexico needed was a change in the government, not a feat that we as outsiders could do. But we thought we might be able to help in our own country. So we returned home and spent a year in Washington, where we worked with policy groups. We had learned from practical experience that what happens in the United States directly impacts the lives of the poor in Mexico. Although we couldn't change the Mexican government, perhaps, we thought, we could do something to change our own.
I don't need to belabor how unsuccessful we were. The situation of the poor in Mexico, in all of Latin America and even in our own country has gotten worse, not better, in the past few years.
So at least, we thought then, we could do something for our own poor. To do this, we chose to work with an organization that has been in operation for a long time and has a respected reputation, the Christian Appalachian Project, started by Fr. Ralph BeRing back in 1964.
Christian Appalachian Project
When Fr. Beiting first came to Kentucky in the late '40s, he was appalled at how badly many people lived. At first, he just gave people food and clothing and arranged housing for them. Then he organized fundraising and gathered volunteers, trying to reach out to anyone in need, not only giving them help but trying to maintain their dignity.
In those days, the people of East Kentucky were either coal miners, disabled or unemployed, or on their way north or west out of the state. Fr. Beiting fell in love with the natural beauty of this part of the country and he genuinely loved the people. There were few Catholics in East Kentucky, and people were often suspicious of Catholics, especially Catholic priests, so he had to work to overcome that problem, too. He even took to street preaching to show that Catholics too were Christian, and he named his organization "Christian" (not "Catholic") Appalachian Project, making it clearly ecumenical, as it is today.
Things have changed dramatically since Fr. Beiting's initial work in the '40s and '50s. For one thing, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, and the front lines of the war were right in Appalachia. People came to Appalachia for many reasons. Some came to take pictures and write articles about the deprived mountain people sitting on their rickety porches while their dirty, raggedy children stayed home from school. Others came and volunteered their medical and educational help. But the most significant changes came through government aid in many forms.
These government programs probably helped some people, but ultimately they destroyed the spirit of the proud mountain residents, who used to disdain any outside aid. Today most observers will say that the single greatest harm to the Appalachian people can be said in one word: welfare.
Handouts or hand ups?
The word "welfare" is no longer used, but there are still many commodities and other forms of assistance given to the poor, and most people seem to like such assistance very much. This was perhaps one of the first things we learned as we got to know the East Kentuckians. People say, without embarrassment of any kind, that they "draw," meaning they receive government assistance. Others are appalled that with the new rules there is a time limit on such assistance. I have even heard some healthy people say they would like to be on disability just so that they would not have to work anymore. …