Sociologists explain their condition through a culture-of-poverty theory or the theory of internal colonialism. Under the first theory, Appalachia families, for better or worse, simply cope with poverty. The second theory, on the other hand, ascribes poverty in Appalachia to structural causes. The theories offer insights but are both found to be quite deficient (Billings and Blee).
The first theory on culture-on-poverty became popular in the 60s and drew its premise from Appalachia's ethnic geography in the late 19th century. It was then perceived as a distinct region and race that entered the American consciousness only after the Civil War (Billings and Blee 2002). Imaginative fictionists only conjured images of the mountain and upland cultures, which were vastly out of step with the lowland's, culturally ad economically. At the turn of the century, Willim Goddell Frost, president of Berea College of Kentucky, discoursed on the people of the southern amounts as "Appalachian Americans" and assumed them to be backward on account of their geographical, socio-cultural and economic isolation from the progressive lowland (Billings and Blee). Frost pointed to the mountain people of Appalachia as "our contemporary ancestors" who were the surviving remnants of white pioneer settlers and valuable contributors to the building of early American institutional life (Billings and Blee). Frost influenced the perception of sociologist George Vincent, who conceived of Appalachia as a "retarded frontier.(Billings and Blee)." Frost pictured the mountain people of Appalachia as poor but morally upright and therefore deserved to be helped. Others called attention to the Appalachians' predilection for moonshining and feuding. The rest formed the belief that Appalachia was a coherent region with a homogenous population with a uniform culture (Billings and Blee). These people exuded a high level of sameness and identity over the neglect of locality differences and population diversities.
Constructive efforts were massively expended to effect the social construction of Appalachia as a distinct socio-cultural society through settlement housing programs and other urban-based strategies (Billings and Blee 2002). The objective has been to integrate Appalachia into the majority culture. The vision is to document and preserve preferred versions of the southern race by enthusiasts. Between 1904 and 1927, the lowland image held about the mountain tribes was one of moonshining and tribal assaults and conflicts, as evidenced by the movies and the media of those periods (Billings and Blee). It was only during the early construction of Appalachia as an isolated folk culture that the image deviated into a better one that makes it an indispensable standpoint on social change in daily life matters, such as family and community institutions. This value is, however, handicapped by the co-existing assumption that Appalachians are people without their own history. Appalachia appeared to attract the attention only of ethnographers and novelists, not historians and anthropologists (Billings and Blee). In 1922, historian William Conneley almost never accounted for Appalachian Kentucky, so that in the 60s, the entire Appalachian territory was described as one where time stood still (Billings and Blee).
Jack Weller (as qtd in Billings and Blee 2002) pointed to the independence-turned-individualism culture of poverty as the great obstacle for the mountaineers from finding a place in the complex and cooperative American society. He described the natives as traditionally stubborn, sullen and perverse as well as fatal, although he also noted that they did not know how to rebel, to question or to complain (Billings and Blee). He singled out that the greatest stumbling block of this race was its people themselves who resisted change and improvement of their lives.
Statistics of the 60s showed that more than half of the population of many Central Appalachian countries wee por and that the Appalachian culture was then undergoing region-wide depletion (Billings and Blee). The phenomenon alarmed social scientists, policymakers and popular opinion-makers. They felt that the mountain isolation that was merely physical and geographical had become mental and cultural in form and that it had held the natives up in their disadvantaged areas. They resisted change and interventions that would bring them into contact with the outside world and make them survive (Billings and Blee). Critics viewed the effect of Appalachians' conditions as evolving into a new cause of conditions wherein it has become an attitude. The new approach was to change the mountain in order to change the mountain personality by modernizing the Appalachian culture along with regional economic development initiatives (Billings and Blee). The entire wave of efforts was premised on the belief that Appalachians suffered economically by being a "region apart" or a place not sufficiently integrated into the national free enterprise environment of the lowland (Billings and Blee).
The Volunteers in Service to America or VISTA is a group that has devoted itself to culturally modernizing the mountains, in its work of arresting and subduing the frontier, it came upon major obstacles, such as the political and economic powerlessness of the tribes trapped and strapped in poverty for generations, entrenched local power structures that served the narrow interests of corporate owner-monopolists of land, mineral resources and politics (Billings and Blee). They concluded that Appalachia is an internal colony. And according to the internal colonialism model, it is poor in proportion to its lack of integration into, not isolation from, the American corporate economy (Billings and Blee).
The culture-of-poverty theory emphasized cultural isolation and was conceptually reinforced by the combined neoclassical economic theory and central place theory to guide the intervention efforts and objectives of the Appalachian Regional Commission (Billings and Blee 2002). The prime objective of the Commission was to contain Appalachia's economic isolation by providing social overhead capital, training skills to people for new industrial and service jobs, by facilitating migration and by promoting the installing or relocation of privately-owned industries through a growth center strategy (Billings and Blee).
These projects were to encourage or effect "maximal feasible participation" of these poor people through community development investments in transportation, education and health care specifically designed to overcome isolation and stimulate economic growth in these growth centers (Billings and Blee 2002).
Many contend that Applachian culture has been degraded by the exploitation of the region's land, resources and people through the culture-of-poverty theory (Billings and Blee 2002). Others call passionate attention to the effects of intervention and exploitation. Influential critics blame the condition to the mountain people's fatalism or their coal. One such critic was Helen Lewis who contrasted the Appalachian subculture and colonialism models as metaphor and metonomy and reduced the entire affair into a symbol of Appalachia as an impoverished and exploited region (Billings and Blee). Still another critic, Harry Caudill, powerfully upheld the internal colonialism model and called for the contributions of younger generations of scholars and activists of the 70s and 80s towards documenting the exploitation of Appalachia and the adverse impact of exploitation on the region's indigenous culture and politics (Billings and Blee).
In the meantime, imaging the Appalachians as victims with obscure possibilities of intervention and empowerment gives ways to the likelihood that the high level of poverty in rural Appalachian communities implies a systemic problem and genuinely reflects a people's blunted faith in their personal efficacy through inter-generational experiences of living in that condition (Billings and Blee).
Billings, Dwight and Blee, Kathleen M. Rural Poverty in Appalachia. Fathom Knowledge Network, 2002. http://www.fathom.com/features/122206
Coats, Lauren. Crafting Appalachian Identity: Regional Handicrafts and the Politics of Culture. University of Pennsylvania, 1997. http://www.history.upenn.edu/phr/archives/97/coats.html
Hagedorn, Jake. The Music of Appalachia. http://webpages.charter.net/jakehagedorn.appalachia.html
Lewis, Ronald and Billings, Dwight B. Appalachian Culture and Economic Development. http://www.wvu.edu/pdfiles/lewisarc.pdf
Public Web Market. What is Appalachia?. Civic Net. http://www.civicnet.org/webmarket/appcult2.html
Appalachia: Settlement and Coal. http://www.civicnet.org/webmarket/appcoal1.html