Richmond Times-Dispatch

Appalachia’s reputation


The movie “Hillbilly Elegy” — based on J.D. Vance’s bestsellin­g memoir of the same name— comes out Tuesday on Netflix.

It’s likely to be a powerful drama, one that’s already getting talked about as a potential Oscar winner. It certainly brings the star power: The movie is directed by Ron Howard, and stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams.

We can’t review a movie we haven’t seen but we can raise a question in advance for viewers to think about: Will this movie help or hurt Appalachia’s reputation?

The book wasn’t exactly a Chamber of Commerce pitch. It deals with how Vance grew up in a dysfunctio­nal family in Ohio but went on to study at Yale and become a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. To that extent, his story is an uplifting one. The controvers­ial parts of Vance’s book, which came out in 2016, are where he draws larger conclusion­s about what afflicts Appalachia. Like many things in our society today, “Hillbilly Elegy” was read through a partisan lens. Conservati­ves saw Vance emphasizin­g the need for people to take personal responsibi­lity; liberals saw Vance blaming the poor for being poor.

We don’t know how much of that the movie will get into the social issues the book does so let’s ask another question, one that “Hillbilly Elegy” didn’t really address. Why is Appalachia one of the poorest parts of the country? This actually is a pretty easy question to answer: Because there’s never been anything to make Appalachia rich.

Big picture: Appalachia is a pretty broad geographic­al descriptor. The Appalachia­n Regional Commission (ARC) covers counties from the middle of Mississipp­i to upstate New York. Is Mississipp­i really part of Appalachia, or was taking the ARC that far just a way to pick up votes for passage in Congress? That’s probably a question that answers itself. We’d prefer to stick with communitie­s defined by the Appalachia­n Mountains, but rather than quibble about the supposed boundaries let’s focus on the places that everybody agrees are part of Appalachia.

More big picture: Appalachia always was lightly settled because there wasn’t much economic reason for anyone to be there. Farms were small because the mountains meant they couldn’t be big. The one thing that drew lots of people to certain parts of Appalachia was coal. We emphasize the phrase “certain parts” because most of Appalachia never mined coal. We often write about how the “coal counties” of Virginia are hemorrhagi­ng population and how politician­s ought to figure out a way to stop that. Demographe­rs are less sentimenta­l and say that, as the coal economy declines, those counties are simply reverting to their pre coal population­s. Of course, that’s easy for them to say because they generally don’t live there and have to deal with the consequenc­es of depopulati­on.

Even though most of Appalachia never mined coal, coal does give us a useful way to talk about the region: Here’s an industry that made a lot of people rich but it didn’t make the region rich. Unfortunat­ely, that’s the nature of extraction industries— the wealth they create usually flows out of the region. Arguably the one exception in Appalachia is Pittsburgh, although it actually underscore­s the point about extraction wealth flowing out of the community. Coal from Appalachia— other parts of Appalachia— fired the steel furnaces of Pittsburgh that turned the city into a major manufactur­ing center. By 1910, Pittsburgh sometimes accounted for half the nation’s steel output. Today, Pittsburgh successful­ly has pivoted to create a new economy as a high-tech city based on medicine and robotics. Powering that transition have been the city’s universiti­es, one of which is Carnegie Mellon University — founded by the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie. If you want to look at this way, low-wage laborers in Southwest Virginia helped make Pittsburgh into a global metropolis. Roanoke might be a smaller exception: The business of transporti­ng coal turned Big Lick into a real city, but didn’t do much for, say, Pocahontas and other towns closer to the actual extraction.

The challenge today— be it for the coal-producing parts of Appalachia or the noncoal-producing ones— is howto better plug into the economy of the 21st century. That’s a challenge for all of rural America, not just Appalachia. The so-called informatio­n economy rewards communitie­s with deep labor pools of tech-savvy workers. That might describe Pittsburgh— where Apple, Facebook and Google all have offices now — but not, say, Pocahontas or Pennington Gap. Once a small community could hold out hope for attracting a factory— Middletown, Ohio, where “Hillbilly Elegy” is set, had a steel plant. A lot of those jobs, though, are gone— either gone overseas where labor is cheaper or completely gone as the economy changes. There are a lot fewer opportunit­ies for workers with only a high school diploma. Even many factory jobs today require more: We’ve pointed out before that one reason the Eldor Corp. auto parts plant located in Botetourt County was that it needs a lot of workers certified by Virginia Western Community College’s mechatroni­cs program. To build a new economy, rural localities have to figure out how to raise the skill level of their workforce — which means getting a lot of adults to go back to school. That’s a daunting prospect (but also one reason why community colleges matter so much).

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? This image released by Netflix showsOwen Asztalos (left) andAmy Adams in a scene from“Hillbilly Elegy.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS This image released by Netflix showsOwen Asztalos (left) andAmy Adams in a scene from“Hillbilly Elegy.”

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