WYTHE COUNTY, Va., April 24, 2012 — Since starting this column, I’ve been consistently informed by emails, Facebook postings, and general conversation that Bill O’Reilly had expressed a less than favorable opinion of Appalachia that was still being repeated.
While O’Reilly first brought this up during an interview with Diane Sawyer three years ago, people are still disturbed by his words, especially when they are used as a reference point by ill-informed people. It just shows the power of words to inflict damage. (See video below.)
As a rule I avoid what I consider hate mongers such as Mr. O’Reilly like the plague, but in light of so many inquiries and conversations, I have taken a closer look at his rant, to see if any of it has merit.
According to O’Reilly “The culture in Appalachia harms the children almost beyond repair.” He goes on to say, “Their parents are screwed up. Kids get married at 16 or 17, their parents are drunks.” “There’s a culture of poverty and ignorance there.”
His only advice is to leave Appalachia and migrate to more economically promising regions in America. O’Reilly states, “If I’m born in Appalachia the first chance I get I go to Miami okay, because that’s where the jobs are.”
As for helping the region, he seems to want to keep it as one big playground for the country. “You know, I don’t want to rebuild the infrastructure of Appalachia I want to leave it pristine, it’s beautiful.”
First off, let’s dispel the myths of alcoholism and marrying young being rampant in Appalachia. Of the top fifteen per capita alcohol consuming states none are Appalachian. Overall, the West has the highest per capita average while the South and Northeast have the lowest.
As far as marrying too young, the top five states for early marriages contain no Appalachian states.
As for having babies at a young age, again none of the top five are Appalachian states unless one counts Mississippi as Appalachian rather than Southern, and it comes in at number five.
In the year 2005, the most current and comprehensive statistical comparison, which averaged the thirteen Appalachian states, (including Mississippi) the pregnancy rate for 15 to 19 year old girls in Appalachia is 70.06 per 1000. The national average is 70 per 1000 girls.
Mr. O’Reilly also holds the opinion that Appalachia is one of the least educated regions, yet the average rate of obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2009 in the thirteen states of Appalachia is 25.6%, just 2.3% below the national average of 27.9% and higher than 13 other states all together.
As for poverty levels in the United States, while it is true that six of the top ten poverty levels exist within Appalachian states, it is more a reflection of the sad state of economic affairs in general in the United States rather than a regional symptom.
According to The United States Census Bureau, in 2008 the average poverty rate of the thirteen Appalachian states shows 13.9 percent of the population living below the poverty level. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Census_Bureau. Counting the ten most populous states in the country, their average poverty rate is 12.95 percent. Again a .95 percent difference is hardly worthy of writing off an entire region as beyond economic redemption, Mr. O’Reilly.
What Mr. O’Reilly failed or refused to acknowledge is that the increasing poverty, joblessness rate, and general decline of quality of life in Appalachia is a reflection of what’s happening all over America. The disappearance of good paying jobs in the manufacturing and textile industries have not been replaced, and one of the results is the gap between the rich and poor has widened, making the opportunities to rise out of poverty harder.
From 1980 to 2007, the top 1% of household saw incomes rise from $339,200 to $1,319,700. The poorest fifth of households inched up from $14,800 in 1980 to just $17,700 in 2007.
One way of exploring the impact of this growing disparity is by comparing areas of the country where industry and mining have abandoned the work force en masse. The towns of Welch in McDowell County W.Va. and Flint, Mich. have very little in common other than the pattern of their economic demise, so I will use these two for comparison.
As industries shut down and mines were closed, jobs disappeared and residents were forced to go elsewhere to try to find their piece of the American dream or stay and suffer the consequences.
In 1980, the population of McDowell County was 49,899. According to the United States Census Bureau in 1980, the rate of poverty in McDowell County was 23.5%. By 2010 that rate had risen to 32.6% while the county’s population had fallen to just 22,113.
Even Mr. O’Reilly would have to agree that the two regions have nothing in common, yet their statistics show a very consistent pattern of loss. This pattern can be seen throughout the rust belt and the once mighty industrial regions of the country, not just Appalachia. Google the same statistics for any rust belt city. The numbers don’t lie.
These are all symptoms of a national illness, and just because Appalachia is part of it that doesn’t give anyone the right to single it out as hopeless, least of all a Talking Head whose livelihood depends on fostering intolerance and spreading misinformation.
Mr. O’Reilly’s answer to escaping poverty in Appalachia is to move to where the jobs and opportunities still exist for the middle class. Regardless of where in this country people struggle day to day just to keep food on the table, I’m sure they would all be happy to do that, just as soon as Mr. O’Reilly tells them where this Shangri La exists.
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